Tales of a wandering lesbian

Carriaged away

Over the last year, I’ve begun to play with the idea of groundlessness.  At least that’s what Pema Chodron calls it.  She’s a famous, respected Buddhist nun.  I’m a wanderer.  Or I have been.  So, without really meaning to, I’ve been on a spiritual journey, becoming familiar with the unsettled feelings that come with not having a home.  With not knowing, exactly where I’ll be sleeping in a month or a week or a day.  Sometimes I’m tied up in knots, anxious over the unknowing.  Other times, I’m light, carefree.  I land on my feet.  I have amazing friends who have taken me in and put a roof over my head.  I have family that would shelter me for as long as I need.  I am fortunate.

The day before I left Italy for Atlanta, I was in a fit of groundlessness.  Both of the places I’d planned to stay in Atlanta had fallen through, and then reemerged.  When I left Italy, actually got on the plane, I didn’t know where I’d be staying when I landed.  I sent an email to both of my friends asking them to talk amongst themselves and let me know where I should tell the taxi driver to drop me.

I checked my phone as I waited in the customs line in New York, and found that I’d be staying with my friend Kelly for a few days.  I’d camp in her attic room – in June – in the Atlanta heat – without air conditioning.  Then I’d transfer over to my friend Linda’s place, passed around like a smiling football.  This was fine by me.  I’m a pretty easy traveler.  Not a lot rattles me, and I’m happy to sleep almost anywhere.

Kelly was set to pick me up at the airport when my late-night flight arrived.  That changed, though, around hour 3 of sitting on the tarmac in Ney York.  Hour 3 of sitting between 2 giant guys, after I’d traded my specifically selected aisle seat with a woman who wanted to sit with her daughter. “I bet this isn’t what you had in mind when you switched.”  She was right.  I pick my seats very specifically.  At this point I’d been traveling for about 26 hours.  I talk about culture shock pretty regularly, but sitting between two big black guys for three hours, in a hot-ass, non-moving plane, trying to make small talk about a church conference was a seriously challenging re-entry.

When we finally made it to Atlanta, I was in an okay place.  I was channeling my father, ready to figure out how to get a hotel room in the area, and take the shower that I’d been dreaming about for about 12 hours.

I cruised to the front of the plane when the seatbelt sign went off, waved to some of the friends I’d made on my Pisa NYC trip, and booked-it to baggage claim.  Where I proceeded to wait for over an hour.  Long story short, I ended up filing a lost-baggage report, and receiving a little toiletry bag from the airlines.  It was nice.  It even had a t-shirt for me to sleep in.  As I filled out the report, the agent asked me to describe my bag.  “Point to what kind it is,” she said, handing me a laminated card, and smiling kindly.

“It’s a backpack.”  I pointed at the diagram and handed it back to her.

“Oh, did you check oversize?  That’s where backpacks go.”

No, no I had not checked oversize.  My bag was not, in fact, oversized.  So I signed my report, just in case, took my little gift bag and headed to the oversized baggage area.  My little bag, in its friendly, green rain cover was there among army duffels, and weaponry.

Clinging to my post-bag-retrieval high, I sauntered up to the bank of reservation phones to book a hotel.  I studied the colorful pictures, and familiar hotel names.  My dad was a traveling sales man, so I grew up spending family vacations in hotel rooms earned with frequent flier miles and points.  Each logo evoked a specific emotion or memory of sandy beaches, and amusement parks.

I called through the friendly logos, finding each of them booked.  Evidently, the airport had been practically shut down for two days due to the thunderstorms that had kept us grounded in New York.  Stranded travelers had already filled the best hotels.  Around the time I was calling my 10th hotel, I started making friends with the other travelers standing in front of the phones.  We warily traded information:  All of the Holiday Inns were booked, the number for the Comfort Suites was incorrect.

And then we all found an opening.  I can’t even remember the hotel name, but it was close, and it had rooms.  One after the other we called, booking whatever we could, happy to get on a shuttle and get some sleep.  It was 1AM and we were collectively exhausted.

We made our ways to the shuttle area and waited.  When the van pulled up and the doors opened, we stood back to let the others off.

“If you are going to Ramada, don’t.  It has bedbugs and mold.”  A group was piling off, clearly jacked up on adrenaline and drama.  We weren’t headed to the Ramada.  We were headed next door.  I tried not to think about how far bedbugs could travel, and whether mold would matter if I was spending 7 hours in the room…

The hotel was dingy, trapped in the early 80s.  We waited outside a semi-secure vestibule large enough for 2 people, and stifling in the Atlanta heat – even at 1:30AM.  Through bullet-proof glass I paid my $69 and received my key.  The desk clerk pointed to the room closest to the street, and across from the pool/vending/front desk.  All I could think about was a shower and a pillow.  My carefree traveling self was fading, slowly replaced by a character from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

I keyed in, looked around, and stuck my head back out the door to give the thumbs-up to the others who were still waiting for keys.  We’d wondered whether we’d have better luck across the street at the Highland Inn, or something like that.

Backpack balanced on a chair; shampoo in hand, I headed into the bathroom.  And found that there was no hot water.  None.  I let the shower run, hoping it would warm up.  I jiggled the handle and tried the sink.  Zero.  I thought feebly about asking for another room, but I the bed’s tractor beam pulled me in, and I passed out on the way to the door.  I’d shower in the morning.

I didn’t move for about 6 hours.  When I woke up, it was still with thoughts of hot water .  Which did not exist.  Not in my room, at any rate.  No matter, Kelly was coming, and I could get a shower at her place.  I packed up and waited for her call.

“Hi!” came her chipper voice.  “I’ve got a great day planned for us.  We’re going to head to coffee, then to breakfast, then to a meeting, then somewhere fun, and then home tonight.  Make sure you get a shower. ”  Crap.

It’s been a while since I took a submarine shower.  I’m not so good at them.  Fortunately, halfway through the chilly ordeal, the hot water appeared, out of nowhere.  I did a little dance, and scrubbed a couple of days of bus, train and plane rides off of my body.

I checked out, and thought about how mildly grumpy I was that I had to pay for a crap-ass hotel room.  Fortunately, I’d be spending the week with people I loved.  I tried to focus on that, not wanting Kelly to know how un-great my night had been.

When Kelly arrived, it was with some news.  She’d run into her neighbors on the way out of the house.  They were headed to the airport for a 3-week vacation.  That meant that their carriage-house – a beautiful space with a full kitchen and bathroom – was empty.  Quick-on-the-draw Kelly had secured the space for me.   She was a little apologetic when she described the place, afraid that I’d be disappointed not to stay with her.  But the idea of my own bathroom and air conditioning was a dream.

We spent the day tromping around the city, eating, drinking coffee, and catching up.  When we rolled up to Kelly’s place, and she pointed to the neighbors’, I laughed.

It was more beautiful than anything I could have planned.  Nestled into a gorgeous backyard, with its own porch and swing, the carriage house was perfect.  I crunched up the gravel drive, through the white-picket-fence, and opened the door.  The burst of cool air that met me at the door made me laugh again.  Kelly headed to her place, and I set to unpacking.  I drew a bath in the clawfoot tub, and made some tea on the stove.  Then I kicked back in the oversized chair, thinking about the fact that Kelly would never have run into the neighbors if my plane had been on time.  I drifted off, smiling about the $69 I’d paid for the week-long stay at the carriage house, and knowing, once again, how wonderful groundlessness can be.

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July 23, 2010   2 Comments

Iberian splendor

Okay, here it is.  The big meal.  Every trip seems to have a big, memorable meal for me.  In Atlanta, this was it.  I honestly was trying to find a pizza place, to grab a slice of mediocre “New York style” cheese pizza.  But, as I walked through Decatur Square, I stopped in front of a smooth-looking restaurant to read the menu.

Damn.  I knew I was hooked almost immediately.  They had a nice outdoor seat for me, in the cool-enough Atlanta evening.  I quickly made friends with my waiter, Daniel who, when I asked his name, handed me his business card (I thought this was a nice touch), and we started moving through the menu.

Something I learned in Italy was the benefit of taking advice.  Some advice, about what to eat, from the wait staff.  These people know the food intimately.  They see it all day long.  They smell it.  They eat it.  They see what gets sent back, and know what the chef is most proud of.

Tonight I took my Daniel’s advice.  “You’ll be good if you order the special salad and the red quinoa.”  Okay, not what I was thinking, but why not?  I’d eaten late in the day, and my slice of pizza was quickly turning into a full-blown, serious meal.  I had a conversation with my stomach and prepared myself.

Or so I thought.

The salad, which was big enough to be a meal in its own right, was beautiful.  It was endive and arugula with seasoned Marconi almonds, grilled peach, and goat cheese.  Holy yum.

I savored every scrap of it, listening to the lesbian couple next to me bicker about whether they would allow their infant daughter to know the family members they didn’t like, and whether people who don’t work are just a drain on society.

I just smiled at my salad.

A fool, I had debated with Daniel about whether I should have the quinoa (I love quinoa), or something else I can’t even remember now.  The quinoa erased all memory of competing meals.

I’ll try to reconstruct the combinations of flavors and textures, because it was precisely these combinations that made the plate of food sing.  The quinoa, which was nutty and beautiful, had a delicate crunch, and sat on a bed of roasted red peppers.  Slightly roasted.  Roasted just enough to concentrate the flavors, while leaving the soft, sweet flesh tender.  That sweetness paired beautifully with the tangy tomatillo salsa, and the crunchy, salty asparagus that had been slightly braised.  The magnificent corn sauce was entirely of its own flavor, creamy and sweet.  Independent in the way it made the whole, stewed tomatoes edgy, and the mushrooms even more elegant.

I’d been worried about the mushrooms.  Generally, I’m a fan, but shitake can border on the slimy, chewy, nasty side for me.  I have to say, though, these were the star of the show.  They were marinated, seasoned and sautéed in a way that made them tender and succulent.

The endive and microgreens were lovely as well.  The finished off the piece, giving it a light, clean feeling.

I spent a good amount of time, studying the dish, which was beautiful and inviting.  I paired different parts and evaluated each combination.  It was as much entertainment as meal.  Even as I became increasingly, uncomfortably full, I wanted to make sure I’d tried everything fully before abandoning my attempt.

Daniel glided past a couple of times making eye contact long enough for me to smile, give the thumbs up, or nod vigorously.  When he saw a slow-down in the action, and approached again, he was smiling.  “Dessert?”

Now, I wasn’t hungry.  I was, in fact, unhungry.  But it’s almost always worth hearing the list, in my experience.  He went through a litany of tasty treats, gelato, tort, etc.  And churros.  With a chocolate dipping sauce.

I’d heard tell of such things existing in far off lands like Spain.  My experience of curros was relegated to Disneyland and Costco.

“What’s made in-house.”  The question had served me in so very many situations, and I pulled it out now with relish.

“Well, the churros.”  He was a little sheepish telling me that they didn’t make everything there.  It wasn’t a problem for me, though.  The churros sounded delicious, and I didn’t really want anything huge, so it was a win-win.

“And an espresso.  Let’s do this thing.”  Daniel smiled a conspiratorial smile and headed to the kitchen.

I sat in front of the plate of fried, sugared delight.  It reminded me of an edible Calder staybile.  You know those giant steel sculptures that look like mobiles that have fallen to the ground?  Yeah, maybe it’s an obscure reference, but it’s the truth.

Passersby gawked.  Kids.  Adults.  Dogs.  I could hear the lesbians whispering next to me, and after an hour of ignoring each other, they finally asked what I was eating.  The power of the churros was strong.

“How is everything?”  Daniel was back.

“You might want to give people a heads up about the size.  I’m getting stares.”  He giggled and looked at the ground.

The churros were hot.  They were extruded and fried-to-order.  Which was perfect.  I thought I’d finally make it through a meal in Atlanta without a fried course.  Nope.  The fried dough had a wonderfully crispy exterior, and an airy, doughy inside.  The tubes were the size of a big carrot, and crunched with a satisfying sound when I chomped into them.

The chocolate dipping sauce was slightly spiced, and equally hot.  Throwing all concerns about staring lesbians, I dip pieces of churro in the sauce, and then into the surplus cinnamon-sugar on the plate.  The chocolate dripped on the way to my mouth, and I soaked it up with more fried dough.  There were enough churros for four people.  And I ate them all.  Every last one.

I paid my bill and laughed at what my little piece of pizza had turned into.  Then I moved Spain further up my list of places to visit.  Pretty much for the churros.

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July 22, 2010   Comments Off on Iberian splendor

Southern fried

Okay, so Atlanta, being in the South, has a lot of fried food.  This is true.  I think I had something fried with every meal I ate in my week-long trip.  However…there is also some seriously good food in that place.  I’m talking Atlanta and the lesbian-infused suburb of Decatur.  Here are the highlights from the trip’s food log.  Food pretty much fell into three categories:  Breakfast, veggie burger, and fried.  There was some overlap.  There were also a couple of healthyish meals thrown in for good measure.


My first day there, my hostess, Kelly, took me to one of the best breakfast spots in town:  Highland Bakery.  (It just so happens, it’s gay-owned, too.  Joy!)  I’d been there about 7 years ago when I last visited Atlanta.  It was good then, but now it’s bigger, better and even more delicious.

What’s better than being greeted by a cupcake-laden pastry counter?  Not much really.  Unless it’s a mini-muffin sampler!

Yeah, that was good.

The actual meal was a breakfast sandwich of some kind for Kelly, and the breakfast burrito, recommended by our waiter.  I’ll have to go back to try the Hoppin’ Highland.

Pretty much every day, I headed to the Dancing Goats for coffee and bagels.  Mmmmm, bagels.  I hadn’t my usual bagel fix for over a month, so I was really excited to encounter the hand-made, wood-fired bagels at Dancing Goats.

Not to mention the world-class coffee.  (There are only two Dancing Goats coffee-shops, despite the coffee being sold everywhere.)

And then there were donuts.  I heard there was a place that’s been compared to Voodoo Donut in Portland.  I knew it couldn’t actually be like Voodoo.  That’s not possible.  It was, however, delicious.

Housed in a non-descript strip-mall of a building, Sublime Donuts turns out gourmet donuts.  We chatted with the owner who, when asked for his favorite, waived his arm dramatically and declared “all of them!”  Kelly had the caramel-apple fritter.

And I signed up for a red velvet cake and an orange dream star.

The red velvet was topped with cream cheese frosting and pecans and the orange dream star was filled with creaminess and topped with a delicate, sweet orange frosting.

Next there were the sweet potato waffles at Rise and Dine.  Kelly raved about these things from the second I got in until we had them.  And then a little after that.

She had hers with bacon.  I had mine with Jalapeno cheddar grits.

Turns out I’m a grits girl.

Which I proved again and again, next at The Flying Biscuit.  This place used to be owned by the Indigo Girls.  Now it’s not, but it’s tasty.  I had this:

It was black bean patties, over-medium eggs, tomatillo salsa and feta cheese.  With a side of cheesy grits.  And a biscuit.  And homemade jam.  O. M. Y.  Oh my yum.  This is possibly the best thing I ate in Atlanta.  At least for breakfast.  Don’t be dirty.

The award for most beautiful breakfast in Atlanta came from Rise ‘n’ Dine.  I made a return trip.  This time I had a scramble with tomato, goat cheese and basil.  It came with a beautiful biscuit and house-made, no-sugar-added jam.  It was terrific.  And pretty.

The least delicious, but most interesting breakfast was at IHOP.  It’s been years since I had eaten at an IHOP.  I was a fiend in college.  Currently, IHOP has a 600 calorie or less menu.  I’m really not sure how many people in the house were eating off of it, but my other hostess, Linda, and I were.  Not a bad meal, in fact.  Harvest Nut and Grain pancake, egg substitutes and a banana.

The other quasi-healthy, and much tastier meal I had was at Kelly’s place.  She and her partner cooked for me.  The takeaway from the meal was a recipe for kale chips.  Yep, kale chips.  If you rip kale into potato chip sized pieces, place them on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then bake at 400ish until they’re crispy, you’ll be delighted.  It’s almost like a potato chip.  But healthy.  And kale.

I’ve since learned that you can add a bit of mustard to give it a zing.  Paired with cheese I brought back from Italy, we had a darn good meal.

For other healthyish meals, I hit ragin’ tacos for a plate of delicious tofu tacos,

and Lotta Frutta, an excellent, exotic fruit smoothie bar.  I had a guana smoothie and a grilled cheese.

The sandwich came with seasoned corn bits that I would, oddly enough, experience a week later in Peru.

Veggie burgers:

I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of house-made veggie burgers on menus all over the city.  Some of these were seriously good.  Some of these were seriously fried.  Some of these were served in restaurants I will not frequent.

The first was at Joe’s on Juniper, a gay sports bar with a great outdoor seating area.

The burger was house made with black beans, and fried.  It was tasty, but fell apart in my hands, which irritates me, truth be told.  I sat on the patio and listened to labor protestors across the street.  My waiter apologized, but I had good time listening to the chants.

That same night, Kelly took me to a fancy burger bar, called Flip Burger.  I only tell you the name so that you will know that it’s the place that serves fois gras.  For that reason, I won’t, personally, go back.  The burgers were good.  Mine might have been fried, I don’t recall, but it was topped with pickled onions, goat cheese, and microgreens.  Kelly had a bacon cheeseburger.

The real purpose of the trip, however, was the milkshakes.  Kelly’s was toasted marshmallow, and mine was turtle.  Neither of us opted for the goose-liver pate option…

While we were there, we ordered a tray of fried pickles.

Yes, they were good.  They were bread and butter, and came with some kind of buttermilk dipping sauce.  I’ve always pictured a fried pickle as a whole pickle, dropped into a deep fryer.  That’s not what these were.  They could have been bread and butter shoeleather, fried and slathered and they would have tasted good.

Much like the fried okra I had a couple of days later at a place called Farm Burger.

This had some kind of chipotle dipping sauce.  I think I liked this veggie burger best of all.  It was fried and fell apart, but it was quinoa.  I like quinoa.  It’s another grain I saw a lot of in Peru…  Paired with the sweet pickles and goat cheese, the burger was nice.  It went down smoothly.  Which is good, because Farm Burger also serves ice cream floats.  I had a ginger beer one.

While the award for best veggie burger goes to Farm Burger, the award for best fried food goes to Watershed.

That’s an okra pancake.  Actually, it’s two of them.  Chopped and battered and formed into cakes, the okra retains some of its former glory, the tapioca-sized seeds bursting in your mouth.  But it becomes more.  It’s far better than the usual fried-okra, which is pretty darn good.  It was delicate and crispy.  It didn’t hit me over the head with its okraness or its fried nature.  It was just simple and good.  Like everything else on the plate.  There was no surplus.  The heirloom tomatoes were simply seasoned with salt and pepper.  The cucumber salad was dressed with crème fraische.  I left full and happy.  Plus, it was at Emily Saliers place, Watershed.  So it was staffed by cute girls, and had a certain lesbian sensibility about it.

While I ate well the whole time, there’s one meal that stands out.  After a long day of writing, I was hoping to grab a piece of pizza and head back home.  Only, on the way to the pizza place, I got sidetracked by a menu in the window of the Iberian Pig.

That’s the pig.  Or it’s A pig.  Might not be the actually Iberian Pig.  Unclear.  What was clear was that the food was divine.  Peaches, quinoa and churros.  If you want more detail, you’ll have to wait.  This place deserves its own post.

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July 22, 2010   2 Comments

Stone-fried hospitality

When I first decided to go to Peru within a week of returning from Italy, I thought it would be a good idea to spend the week in between back in the states.  It seemed the culture shock of first-world Italy might be a little much next to the unfamiliarity of third-world Peru.  But Portland, my home base, is on the other side of the country from my entry point on the East Coast, and I’d be traveling with a friend from Atlanta, so I thought I’d spend some time there.  In the South.

Now, I know that some of you are saying, “Atlanta’s not the South!”  Well, it is.  For someone from Portland, it’s the South.  I like Atlanta, but it might have been less of a shock to head directly to Peru, where the language difference would have alerted my brain that I was, indeed, in a different country/culture.  Spending a week in a place that looked and sounded somewhat familiar was just enough to make me feel like I was losing my mind.  I spent time searching for the gayness that I’d missed so desperately over the last month, and finding fried food

Stone Mountain

and slow-talking hospitality.

Total strangers put me up in their beautiful guest-house.  Amazing.

I even found some of the gayness, too.

But that just contributed to the feeling of being constantly off-balance.  I could read the menus, but couldn’t anticipate the constantly fried preparations.  I could navigate the nature hikes, but couldn’t absorb the confederate flags along the trail.  I still don’t know if it’s good or bad etiquette to take pictures of confederate monuments, or if there’s a reason to put fois gras in a milkshake.  Anyone?  Anyone?

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July 21, 2010   4 Comments

Tower and lake

Here’s the thing about Torre Del Lago, the city Deb and Sandra took us to:

There’s a tower.

There’s a lake.

There’s a beach.

There’s Puccini’s opera house.

There’s a gay disco or two.

There’s more than one crazy person.

And there’s more than one vendor.

We experienced this.  All of it.

Also, should you forget your bathing suit, it’s not a problem.

The locals don’t mind.

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July 11, 2010   5 Comments