California Dreaming: Being a Tourist Where I Once Lived.

In the last four weeks, I’ve gone from:

Chelsea, NYC to Short Hills, NJ.
Short Hills to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Williamsburg to Hamptons.
Hamptons back to Williamsburg.
Williamsburg to LA.
LA to Laguna Beach.
LA to San Francisco (with stops along the way).
San Francisco back to Williamsburg.

In New Jersey: I got to spend four days with my sister and my three nieces. We even got our hair and nails did for my other niece’s bat mitzvah. I got to sit on their deck at sunset and drink margaritas and dance with my six year old niece while getting mosquito bites on my ankles. My sister and I sat side by side, working in silence on our laptops, nursing our coffees, on a Monday morning.

Williamsburg: I got to spend two weeks surrounded by hipsters, cute cafes, and no sirens or pissed-off crowds. Israelis were everywhere, their conversations in Hebrew and gesticulating hands made me feel at home. And the orthodox Jews, who I got to see at the gym on the treadmill in long skirts and hair coverings (yes, this means I actually went to the gym) and the men leaning against buildings (synagogues, schools, and the occasional law firm) dressed in the traditional black and white garb smoking cigarettes (their only permissible indulgence perhaps). I got to experience (yet another) last hurrah of pretending I’m twenty-five (and too cool for the L train).

Los Angeles: I got to spend a long evening with one of my best friends from LA, while she is recovering from a frightening near death accident, talking about life, and our marriages, and love, but mostly, the beauty and fragility of life. I got to wake up the next morning and have coffee in her kitchen and take a soak with my husband in the hot tub overlooking a lush backyard. I got to be a tourist, my husband and I driving down Hollywood Blvd. in a red mustang convertible, wearing dorky matching straw hats and RayBans.

I got to be a tourist in the city I once lived in for six years, when I was a different person, in another life. I got to take my husband to my old house, which I once shared with my ex-husband – a house that I peered into as if I was peering into a diorama depicting another century, another life, inhabited by someone who looked like me and had my name, but isn’t me – and rejoice. I got to stand next to my husband and celebrate how far I’ve come, revisit a life stage that is no longer, and reaffirm that the nostalgia pangs that had lingered on previous solo visits to LA had completely vanished.

At first, I wanted to deny the fact that we were tourists. How could I be a tourist in my former home state? But alas, as soon as we hit the Pacific Coast Highway headed north out of Los Angeles, the brim of our hats and my hair flapping gleefully in the wind, it no longer mattered. We boarded the shuttle at Hearst Castle with forty other sweaty tourists, and listened to Alex Trebec’s voice drone on the loudspeaker about the beautiful terrain and 150,000 acre history (you’ll have to Google the rest because nah, I wasn’t really listening). Half way through the guided tour through the grand rooms of the estate, led by a cheery guide-librarian type, I had reached my follow-the-pack-and-like-it limit. But mainly, I didn’t want to miss the Elephant Seals who we had heard are camped out along the beach like giant lazy sausages with the faces of a Labrador retriever. The Hearst tour had taken three hours and I was worried that the Elephant Seal visiting hours would be closed (and my husband knew I would have a child tantrum if we missed them…he’s been scarred by the monkeys who I didn’t get to hold and have my hair braided by in Mexico). So on our way out, I anxiously asked the dude at the Visitor’s desk, “How long will the Seals be there for today? Two or three more hours?” He looked at me with a bored look on his face and deadpanned, “They’ll be there for another fifty years.” FullSizeRender

At Big Sur, we checked in to a rustic inn at the base of the redwood trees that made my husband look not tall. We were told at the check-in/reception desk/restaurant to sign in, and proceed to our cabin.

“Is there a key?” I asked the hippy lady, long hair middle parted and bemused smile on her face.

“Nope.”

“Is there a safe?” I asked.

“Nope.” Pause, still smiling. “Where you from?”

“New York,” I replied sheepishly.

“Yeah, I hear that a lot.”

Before dinner, we hiked the windy dirt trail out of the shaded canyon, up above the redwoods, me in flip-flops and a summer-dress/night gown (one of four uniforms I’ve been recycling this past month) to catch the sunset. The sky was a deep aqua, the jagged perimeters of the mountains lay against it like a 2D cut out. We watched the surfers down below, birdlike specs bobbing up and down as they waited for the next wave to crest. IMG_2116

By the time we got to San Francisco at the end of the trip and ditched the Mustang, I swapped in the word “tourist” for “visitor” and participated in the sites – the famous trolley ride, the crowded Fishermans Wharf, including ice cream cones from Ghirardelli Square. I was like a satisfied toddler at Disneyland, without a care in the world. We feasted on Mexican food, Belgian food, and sushi, followed by drinks at a bar we stumbled upon that happened to be popular amongst the tech start-up crowd (like most bars in San Francisco, duh). We made new friends, and returned the next night, briefly feeling like locals. We came back to the hotel at 2am and ordered pizza and watched stand-up comedy like college kids.

When I woke up on our last morning in our white hotel room, I looked at my husband still asleep beside me, and felt a spike of anxiety about returning “back to life.” Work, sales. Having to flip the switch back to ‘on’ mode – back to business. What opportunities did I miss while away, jobs that I did not go after for my directors? What novel have I not been rewriting? I need to make clean up appointments: my hair needs coloring, my nails fixing (do not try opening a beer with a key, fyi).

And then I remembered – we are moving this week! – and the stress lifted. Finally, we are moving into our new home that we purchased together, the start of an even more exciting adventure, for which I hope to retain and maintain the same wide-eyed enthusiasm and appreciation of a kid – or a tourist – at Disneyland.

Post script: The drought is apparent and depressing. Hearst Castle had their public bathrooms closed by order of Governor (porta-potties lined up outside like good little soldiers), and flushing unneccesarily is a no-no, as is shaving in the shower. The worst news: Avocados and almonds are endangered.
FullSizeRender

Family vacations. It's all relative.

Is our maternal instinct, or desire to parent, really innate? Or is it a function of societal pressure and our immediate environment? I guess, what I’m wondering, is everything, including what we think we want, all relative?

In January, I was fortunate enough to go on a family trip with my parents, two sisters, and their awesome kids (five nieces and one nephew) to the island of Turks and Caicos.  Since my parents aren’t getting any younger, they decided that nothing could be better than having the whole family together for a week, away from everything. I had been unable to partake in previous trips, for various reasons, but mostly because my separation from my husband had thrown me into a me-centric place, and the thought of taking time off from the new life that I was trying to build to go on a time out with my family, where everything had stayed the same, was not appealing. I get along great with my family most of the time, but getting along wasn’t a priority for me back then, moving on was. And I sensed that being around my family, where nothing ever seems to change, where progress seems organic and doesn’t require a herculean effort, would be too painful for me, because it served as a nagging reminder of what I no longer had (and who I no longer was).  Not to mention that there is something about being around people whose incessant concern over your well being only makes you feel worse.  It forces a glaring spotlight onto what is wrong. And, if you’re Jewish like me, you have to answer a lot of questions (evasion is not an option). So the thought of choosing to go away with my family to an island (with no Blackberry service aka contact with my best girlfriends) on a vacation, was like choosing to jump out of a burning airplane (metaphor for bad marriage, yes) onto an island populated by wild boars. 

To my surprise, no one was offended. They understood. I seemed to have pocketed a divorce “get out of jail free card” without an expiration date (at least until I get married again).  Although this wasn’t entirely true. Sometimes my choices upset my mother. She once let it slip that she “wished she had done with me like Moses in the basket.” She was referring to the abandonment of baby Moses by his mother down the Nile River. I tried not to be offended by it. I rationalized it by saying that my mother simply “didn’t know what to do with me.” She felt bereft of the tools to help me. Come to think of it, my mom has a lot of baskets strewn about the house, filled with flowers, or blankets (no people).

But this time, I wanted to go. I had gotten closer to and more comfortable with my family. And with myself. But I didn’t decide until the last minute, a good eight months after the hotel and airfares had been booked. My parents were excited by my willingness to attend, but the problem was everything was too expensive. “You don’t want us or yourself to spend that much money on this, do you? We’ll make it up to you another way,” my mother said. I got upset. I felt uninvited. Not to mention that I wanted to go for all the right reasons. Mature ones. I wasn’t looking for some time in the sun paid for by mom and dad, like we do when we’re 16. I was yearning to spend time with my nieces who love me and give me special hairdos that take me days to untangle.

I told my mom the truth. I felt as if she had thrown me into the basket again, the picnic kind with a lid. It worked magically. I had no idea I’d inherited my parent’s talent for employing guilt to achieve the desired effect, but in this case, I was glad I did.

It was eighty degrees every day, and the resort was beautiful. Because I had arrived late, I got my own room (everyone else had adjoining ones so that they could all be together…eat together…wake up together…isn’t that what families who love each other do?) I was used to being the odd man out, so it was fine. Besides, I was hungry for some space, some alone time. This was right after my boyfriend and I had broken up, and I needed to process what it meant. Not to mention that my mother was itching to monitor my meals like she always did. So I was grateful to have my own space to retreat to.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was grieving yet another loss. A break up with a serious boyfriend, when you’re in your mid-thirties, also means confronting that you’ve postponed having a family to an unspecified date (for me it did anyway).

And there were kids everywhere. The resort we were staying at was a Jewish “Sandals” resort, full of young parents and their screaming kids. I was assuredly the only single person for miles and miles of lush beach. And the more screaming and crying I heard, the happier I was about it.  Unfortunately, my sister’s husband had to leave in the middle for a funeral, leaving her to look after her three kids (one is a baby) without his help. It was not easy, and surely not a vacation.

As the days wore on, my sadness over my situation lifted. I wondered if this trip was more than just some R&R with my family, but a sign, once again reinforcing my decisions, telling me, “Enjoy your solitude and your lack of obligations. Enjoy not having children, Cougel, because once you do, there’s no such thing as a vacation.” I felt young and free. My five-year-old niece confirmed this.  As she shoved the eighth bobby pin into my scalp, she said, “You’re not old! You’re not even married!” 

By the end of the week, tan and healed and reveling in my lack of attachments, I flew back with my mother, my sister and her three girls. The rest of my family flew separately (my family never flies on one plane). Watching my sister walk up and down the aisle with her crying baby and trying to appease the other two, while I was seated away from them in the emergency aisle (poor man’s first class) made me sympathize with her.

But I didn’t want to be her. Again it made me wonder, was it really worth it?  Did my immersion in all the things I thought I wanted, serve to dissuade me from wanting them?

At baggage claim, my sister told me that her husband had just landed too. He coordinated his return flight from the funeral so that he could land in JFK when his family did.

When we emerged from customs and the doors opened revealing the crowd of people waiting in arrivals, my brother-in-law stepped forward from the crowd, arms outstretched, his face eager.  My two nieces (seven and five) spotted him and screamed out his name, “Abba!” (“Dad” in Hebrew. Not the band. Otherwise I’d be the one screaming) and started running towards him. Then the baby, ensconced in her carriage, threw her fists up in the air and mimicked her older sisters, “Abba! Abba! Abba!”

Needless to say, watching them all embrace, the girls climbing on him, his eyes wet with tears of joy, struck me with emotional force.  They were all going home together in their car (no matter that it’s jammed with car seats and cracker crumbs).  And I was going to get into a cab, alone.

And then it dawned on me: “So this is what it’s all for.” All the screaming, the sleep and self time deprivation, didn’t matter in the end.  Because it’s all worth it.