I didn't expect this, my third Father's Day without him, to hurt as much as it did.
It makes me sad not to know if I would have called her Grandmother or Granny or some other name.
It would not be Nana. That name was reserved for my mother's mother. I never got a chance to call my father's mother, Sophie Lillian Demsky Keene, anything; she died when I was less than a year old.
I have to use my imagination to fill in the gaps of my real life knowledge.
I can only guess that she might have liked to be called Babcia.
Through the years, Dad revealed tidbits about my other grandmother, his mother Sophie, here and there. When I was a little girl and I had drawn something my father particularly liked or mastered a new song on the piano, Dad would say "your grandmother would be so proud of you."
She was little more than an abstraction to me, but I liked my father thinking that way.
Sometimes I didn't ask my dad the questions I wanted to because the stories he had told me were obviously tinged with sadness. Dad expressed bafflement by some of the things he experienced, like when Sophie made him allow her to curl his straight hair for a church photo. He could never understand why someone would do that to a little boy, why she would embarrass him that way.
Each time he brought up this time in his life, I gently reminded him that it was a long time ago. That Sophie, an immigrant from Poland, loved him and surely didn't do it to hurt him.
"You're probably right, Jen," he would say, but I didn't know if he meant it.
When my dad was still alive, I turned to Google, in an effort to try to spare him the hurt my prying questions might provoke. And now, years later, I have found even more info on Ancestry.
Thanks to the 1940 census, I now know that Dad's mother was just 17 years old when she bore her first child. I have tried and failed to imagine what that was like for her, particularly with a husband nine years her senior. While Polish like her, Joseph was born in the States and had a very un-Polish sounding name (alternately Keene, Keen and Kin), a mystery that I still haven't unraveled. I used to joke that we had an Ellis Island name, but I have since learned that was a myth.
My father was Sophie's last child, born when his older brothers were thirteen and nine years old and his sister was eleven. He was unplanned. Dad's father was not around much during his childhood and I know that money was tight.
But two things keep this story from being too sad to bear.
First, there is the fact that I had a wonderful dad. I imagine that Sophie had something to do with that.
Then there is this: Sophie was a painter. Somehow, some way, in a life that was sometimes cruel, Sophie became an artist. One proud enough of her work to sign every last painting with her name. Several hang in my childhood home, and two more in my Brooklyn apartment.
My grandmother found beauty, as well as the time and means to share it. I'm glad, Babcia. Thank you.
Is it too late to talk about New Year's? Oh well. It has taken me some time to get this post together (thanks stomach bug).
One week after my friends and I put down a deposit on a place in Orient Bay, St Martin (SXM), Hurricane Irma hit.
I was crushed--and not just for myself. SXM is a special place and it has been awful to know that the people there are suffering as they work to rebuild. Last year, two friends and I spent a full week on SXM and it was such a relaxing trip. I came back relaxed, a little tan and ready to start a new year.
While our rental was apparently fine, the real estate agency admitted that the surrounding area had been devastated with restaurants leveled and supply deliveries slowed.
My friends and I struggled to agree on a new destination. Flights were expensive, just about everywhere, as were accommodations. Our plans fell apart.
And then one of my terrific friends, Christy, made a suggestion: Turks & Caicos (TCI). She had gone there on her honeymoon, and was under the impression that their hurricane damage was minimal. Soon after, I searched flights, found one for $350 and talked to my friends. Ultimately three of us-Adrienne, Christine and me-went to TCI for five nights--that is until stormy weather in NYC added a sixth night for two of us.
Here are some tips if you are thinking of visiting Turks & Caicos.
We stayed at La Vista Azul and which was my fault. When we were ready to book in November, AirBNB options were thoroughly depleted, and hotels were either pretty cheap or exorbitantly expensive (like $2000-$10000 per night). Because only two of us were confirmed to travel at this point, I recommended that we book the conservative option: $1575 for five nights.
While the hotel was fine-ish, the location was not ideal and we spent a lot of money on taxis (more on that later) before renting a car for two days. Vista Azul is in Turtle Cove and Grace Bay is really where you want to stay. Additionally Vista Azul is most definitely not a resort-style experience. The two rooftop pools are small and mostly shaded each afternoon.
Our other conservative option, Ports of Call, was about $2200 for the same time period. It's the same approximate class as Vista Azul, but the Grace Bay location is so much better. You can walk to the beach, grocery store, shops, etc. Our only walkable option was Naughty Gull which was cute and convenient if pricey (an extra shot of espresso in your latte? That will be $4.).
They're beautiful, pure and simple. Because we weren't staying at a beachfront Grace Bay property, it was a little awkward figuring out how to stage the perfect beach day: chairs, umbrellas, food and drink.
In Orient Bay, SXM, most of the accommodations aren't beachfront so everyone rents chairs and umbrellas from the little beach bars and restaurants. Then you order food and drink from their servers at your leisure, and you get access to their restrooms and wifi. It's a great set-up.
Grace Bay beaches all have public access, which is wonderful, but the various resorts didn't seem to know what to do when we asked if we could use or rent their chairs and umbrellas. Ultimately it worked out but no one tried to sell us food or drink. Missed opportunity!
There are, of course, lots of beaches beyond Grace Bay but our schedule of excursions didn't allow for a ton of exploration. Next time!
Adrienne and Christine hit a home run booking our excursions. They were terrific! We did a sunset horseback ride on the Blue Hills Beach through Unique Tours. It was a lot of fun. We also took Island Vibes' full-day BBQ tour on a catamaran. Our captains, Dondre and Big Mike were terrific.
Taxis are expensive in TCI. When three of us traveled together, the trip from our hotel three miles to Grace Bay for time at the beach or dinner would run $10 per person. Given that rental cars can be found on Priceline et al for ~$40 per day, a rental car is a good investment, particularly if you're not staying in Grace Bay or if you want to explore more. My friends had a pretty easy time driving on the other side of the road--there isn't much traffic on TCI.
Rental cars in the Caribbean tend to be beaters so between that and the insurance you get through any travel-focused credit card, buying the car company's insurance isn't a must.
Food and Drink
TCI is a good Caribbean destination for dining, but I kept comparing them to the restaurants of SXM, which were largely more budget friendly for the same quality. TCI highlights included Coyaba and Coco Bistro.
On New Year's Eve, we started the night at Infiniti before moving on to Ricky's Flamingo Cafe. Ricky's ended up being a highlight between the bonfire, the fireworks and the opportunity to meet locals. Don't miss it.
Something to keep in mind: a lot of TCI spots do NOT engage in continuous service a la restaurants in the US. Additionally, bars where tourists tend to go often close down earlier than we're used to. If you want a late night, befriend a local!
Would I go back to TCI? While my heart is still in St. Martin, until the island is truly ready for visitors, I will absolutely make plans to return to Turks & Caicos.
"You travel so much. I don't know how you do it."
It's rare that I go a week without hearing those words. My response probably surprises them:
I actually love the travel.
Sometimes my words are met with uncomprehending stares. Like, how could I possibly enjoy so many hours trapped in a metal tube jammed in with strangers? Some travelers, frankly, are gross.
I must be insane.
But I truly do love that travel is required in my job. I get to see incredible places and have unique experiences. Spending time face-to-face with clients, colleagues and business partners usually creates tighter bonds and yields more business opportunities. As a bonus, I used frequent flier miles to fly business class to Italy this year. How could I complain?
It's true that sometimes things go awry, but I know from experience that my attitude and some degree of preparation can make things better or worse. Why not choose better?
I flew more in 2017 than I ever have in my life, including more than 100k miles on American alone, which resulted in me hitting American Airlines' Executive Platinum status. Perks include the ability to check two bags for no charge, access to preferred seating (e.g., extra room seats up front), bonus miles, upgrades and even free meals and alcoholic beverages in coach if an upgrade doesn't come through. Oh, and a dedicated service hotline for when I need customer service.
(It pays to be loyal to one airline.)
With time and practice, I have developed an approach that keeps me as comfortable as possible while in transit. If you also travel a lot, these tips may seem overly basic to you, but I would love it if you added your suggestions in the comments.
First, if you haven't signed up for the major airlines' frequent flier programs already. Do it RIGHT NOW. Don't take a single flight for which you don't get credit. If you flew recently without an account, you may be able to get retroactive credit. Check the airline's web site.
When it's time to book a trip, I usually turn to a site like Kayak to figure out the itinerary that is best for me. My primary airline is American, but I don't love the way their search engine works which is why I turn to Kayak even though I don't usually book there.
While cost will almost always be a consideration when booking a flight, I consider factors including how long the flight is, if I need to go direct or can consider a connection, what the total travel time (so important), desired departure or arrival time, and whether or not alternate airports are in play (e.g., JFK vs LGA).
If you don't have status with an airline (I'm assuming you don't if you're reading this post), beware booking the cheapest available fare unless you are positive you can travel without checking a bag (or in American Basic Economy's case, putting a bag in the overhead bin). I generally do not recommend these "basic" fares because you'll almost certainly end up in a middle seat in the back of the plane, which is an uncomfortable way to fly, in my opinion.
The reason I'm dwelling on this is that if you start your travel day feeling nickel-and-dimed, you're likely to feel salty on the rest of your day, and that's not helpful!
Once you book your flight, choose a seat. You can do this either on the airline's web site or using their app. In the days leading up to my flights, I check the seat map in the airline app often, looking for the seat in which I'll be most comfortable.
For me, that's a window seat near the front of coach. I like to control the window shade 😀 and if I'm tired, I find napping in a window seat easier.
If I don't recognize the aircraft by seat map (believe it or not, I usually do at this point), I'll go to SeatGuru to avoid such pitfalls as a seat that doesn't recline or one that is notably drafty.
Preparing to Fly
I approach my flight with the mindset of "what do I need to be comfortable in case no one offers me anything for the duration of the trip?" Thinking that through will help you pack useful stuff in your carryon.
If you're a novice flier, it is helpful to go to the airport earlier than someone like me - thanks to TSA Pre, I sometimes arrive at my gate in the middle of boarding. Do as I say, not as I do.
Some of the things I consider before I go to the airport include:
I'm a hangry sort of person so I almost always have some combination of string cheese, Kind Bars, Gardetto's and cut fruit in my bag. I am trying to eat less sugar, but it's obviously not going very well.
I always have a refillable bottle (my current fave is from Ban.do) because I drink a ton of water--even more when I'm flying. Before boarding my flight, I refill the bottle with at least water, but also ice if available.
While I do not tend to be cold on flights, I prepare for that uncomfortable scenario. News flash: blankets in coach class are rare these days. Often I'll bring my ancient BCBG wrap that is just like this. It functions as a blanket and pillow as needed, and if I ever lose it, I'll be very sad.
Sometimes I will take a travel pillow but recently I lost mine somewhere in my apartment. Seriously, one minute it was there and the next it was not. 😜 Short term, if sleeping on a flight is an option, I get by just fine with a sweater.
Some planes have entertainment systems, some done. If you have Netflix, choose something from the downloadable section. Bring a book or a magazine. It's good to have distractions in the air, obviously.
Reminder: you should be checking your flight's seat map again now.
At the Airport
If you prepared using the steps above, this part should be easy.
But let's say something goes wrong. Maybe your flight is delayed or perhaps the gate agent wasn't as friendly as you think he or she should be. If you remember one thing from this post, let it be this: keep your cool. Acting like an angry entitled jerk never helped anyone--not you, not your fellow travelers and certainly not the people working at the airport.
What does help is staying calm. Whether you achieve that via deep breathing or venting to a friend (via text or email! No one wants to hear you complaining aloud.), just do it and then figure out what your next move is. If the weather is bad and no flights are leaving the airport anytime soon, can you reschedule your flight for the next day and avoid sitting in the airport surrounded by disgruntled people? If yes, act quickly before everyone else is doing the same thing.
Be kind. Be patient. If someone is trying to help you, smile a little, and say please and thank you. Why not make an airline employee feel good about their efforts to address your situation rather than resentful? Save your anger for those circumstances when writing a ragey post-trip letter or email to the airline is truly warranted.
And if you turn to Twitter to look for help from the airline, choose your words carefully. Focus on what you're trying to make happen versus complaining.
In most cases, your flight won't be delayed. The same "be kind" approach means acknowledging the flight crew as human beings with a job to do. Say hello and then take your seat. If you have access to an outlet, plug in your charger before you actually need it and if the outlet is shared, don't hog it for the duration of the flight.
And if you're in the window seat, be a dear and put the shade down at least after takeoff. I promise you: there's nothing to see at 40,000 feet.
I didn't expect Rome to be so charming. Someone said that spending three nights there was too long.
Let's back up for a moment. Mom and I were supposed to go to Italy in 2016. About a month before we were supposed to depart, the tumor was discovered.
My doctor said I could travel before my surgery, but Mom was reluctant.
"I'm not traveling with you--you're a ticking time bomb!" Mom said.
(She is probably going to be mad at me for sharing this so please keep in mind that I am sharing this for comic effect. Mostly.)
We postponed the trip, lost money* and I had surgery. There was a two month-ish acute recovery period. I survived. We agreed to figure out a new trip for 2017 once I was in the clear health-wise. And I more or less am. Yay.
But when we looked at the Abercrombie & Kent offering for 2017, the Italy tour dates weren't ideal. Mom wanted to stick with a Fall trip so she could continue her quest to make the LPGA tour... I mean, win her golf club's ladies' league.
(Sidebar: she and her golf partner actually did win the league so the sacrifice was apparently worthwhile.)
We bickered for a while. Mom put restrictions on places she would go. She vetoed Croatia.
"But it's like undiscovered Italy, kinda!" I said, but she was unswayed.
I feel confident that within the next two or three years. all of her friends will be going to Croatia and she'll ask me why we haven't yet gone there.
I advocated for France - wine! cheese! - but Mom still holds a grudge against the country for not supporting George Bush (I KNOW). Meanwhile she still drinks only Grey Goose vodka which is very much French.
(It's possible she may make me remove this paragraph and photo so please enjoy them while you can.)
Time passed. At the very last minute, we ended up going to Italy on the 2017 version of this A&K itinerary.
You don't need me to recap the trip day by day - that would be boring - so here are a few bits that were special to me.
In Rome, we dined as a group in the apartment of Barbara Beni. The food and company were spectacular, and I loved seeing how a Roman lives her modern life in an ancient village. While our meal was arranged for our group, you can purchase seats at her wonderful dinners here. Visiting her neighborhood, charming Trastevere, was an added bonus.
Overall, I thought the food of Rome was the best of the trip--it's surely responsible for at least half of the pasta weight I gained. Now that I'm home, I'll be studying Katie Parla's Tasting Rome in an effort to revisit the wonderful pastas. Sadly a cold prevented me from meeting the author in person.
Oh, and the designer outlets outside Florence are absolutely worth the trip if you like to shop. I bought myself some presents at Gucci.
Visiting Siena for a few hours was a treat. I would love to go back.
I spent part of my birthday climbing the stairs of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If tickets are available when you visit, I recommend you go up the funhouse-like tower. It's good exercise and the view from the top is worthwhile. Somehow my mother and the mother of a friend I made on the tour spotted us on the top before we saw them on the ground.
Today I woke up in Firenze, climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, traveled to Lucca where I got completely slobbered on by a big affectionate dog, got toasted in Portovenere by Mom and a gang of new friends and [mostly] got through this October 16 without tears. . As I have written about previously, it came as a big surprise to find that my birthday tends to be an extra painful day for missing Dad. But today, my third without him, went just about as well as possible and I'm grateful. . It has been wonderful to hear from lots of you as well. ❤️ #Italy #firenze #cinqueterre #lucca #portonovere #travel
Cinque Terre was spectacular. Like much of Italy, it's a photographer's dream. My favorite lunch of the trip took place in Manarola and I am still marveling over the story of Bormida, a village accessible only by a 1500 step staircase.
On our way to Venice, we stopped in Modena to learn about balsamic vinegar at Acetaia Paltrinieri. Our lunch there featured balsamico on everything from grana padano to risotto to gelato. I loved it. Also I met some goats.
Our tour ended in Venice, one of the most unique cities in the world. The key to navigating this beautiful place to know your hotel's position in relation to the Rialto Bridge. If you can keep track of that, it's more difficult to get lost. Plus my maps app was way more helpful than I had been told to expect.
And truly, there would be worse things than getting lost in Venice.
I can't wait to go back.
*To be honest, I'm still frustrated with Abercrombie & Kent for how they treated us when I shared my news. They put on terrific tours, but if you book with them, you NEED travel insurance in case anything like an incidentaloma shows up.