an open letter to celebrity cruise line

Dear Celebrity,

My very first cruise was on Celebrity.  I was a senior in high school and my friend's mom organized Spring Break on the Celebrity Zenith.  We had a blast.  The cruise ship was beyond impressive, the food beyond delicious and the staff beyond friendly (even when I dropped my entire breakfast tray in the middle of the buffet line).  After my week on the Celebrity Zenith, I returned home with stunning photos, lifelong memories, and ten extra pounds.

Five years later, my husband-to-be and I planned our honeymoon: a Mediterranean cruise.  Finances and dates precluded Celebrity, so we settled for Princess.  It was a lovely cruise, but every time my husband pointed out something great, I replied, "It's nice, but it's not Celebrity."

We took two more cruises over the next few years; timing and cost relegated us to Royal Caribbean and Holland Cruise Lines.  Again my husband complemented our cruise experiences.  Again and again I echoed my refrain: "It's nice, but it's not Celebrity."

Finally this summer we had the opportunity to sail again with Celebrity.  We booked an 11-night cruise on a brand-new ship, the Equinox.  I so looked forward to showing my husband the amazing cruise line that, in my mind, reigned supreme.  And after six months of living in Abuja, neither one of us could wait to be pampered and stuff our face.

We boarded the massive, gorgeous new ship and a waiter handed us flutes of champagne.  Joey looked at me and said, "You win."  We dropped off our bags in our room, impressively ready immediately and gorgeous in its own right, then headed straight for the good stuff: the buffet.  Eyes wide and stomachs growling, we examined the multitude of options: Asian, Italian, Indian, Mexican, salads, meats, cheeses, grilled foods, desserts and more!  We proceeded to the poolside grill station and practically drooled over the burgers, brats, hot dogs, nacho cheese dip, hot wings, french fries, onion rings and acutrements galore.  I hadn't seen fresh, bright green jalapenos in six months and they tasted wonderfully crisp and spicy on my big, juicy burger.

With the giant, fluffy pink margarita I ordered from the poolside bar in hand, Joey and I explored the rest of the ship.  We loved the modern art and the bright, clean spaces.  There seemed more cool bars than days on the ship; but we were ready for the challenge.

Then the cracks appeared.  At dinnertime, we walked downstairs to the main dining room, seating assignment in hand.  A waiter greeted us as we entered, and led us to our table.  Except that table didn't exist.  The waiter kindly asked us to stay put while he figured out our seats, so while the other 1,500 people at the second seating brushed by, we stood in the middle of their way.  After about five minutes the maitre d' finally seated us at a table for five in the corner.

Joey and I always enjoy meeting the other people sailing with us, so we anxiously awaited our dining companions.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, when it was clear we'd be dining on our own, our waiter finally took our order.  Our meal was delicious and once he finally took our order, our waiter was wonderful; however, throughout our meal several different waiters stopped by our table to pick items from the extra settings there.  First, a fork.  Next a knife.  Then a wine glass.   Obviously I don't need four forks, knives, wine glasses, etc., but it certainly kills the romance when every few minutes someone is stopping by to pilfer from your table.  From our vantage we saw many other tables experience problems of some sort.  Joey and I chalked it up to first night jitters.

The second night we were seated in the same table.  We waited for the other guests to join us again, although this time our waiter was immediately more attentive.  Our other guests never arrived, but our procession of visiting waiters did.  Apologetically, our waiter promised the next night to only set the table for two.

The third day our stateroom attendant delivered a new seating assignment to our room.  That evening the maitre d' escorted us to our new table: at the end of the main thoroughfare for the waiters and diners, and directly in front of the kitchen door.  Bright florescent lights glared from the corner as the door slammed open and shut and waiters shuffled in and out, with the clanging of trays and serving lids and silverware drowning out our attempt at conversation.  Our table was surrounded by so much commotion I opted to forgo dessert (yes, it was that bad), and before leaving the dining room, we requested a new spot from the maitre d'.  He apologized and told us that while the seating was full and we might have to wait a few minutes the next evening, he'd find us a new table.

On the fourth night the maitre d' found what he assured us would be a quieter spot.  He apparently didn't notice the table of ten children under the age of ten seated nearby, who screamed, yelled and threw food our entire meal.  When the neighboring table asked the waiter of the whereabouts of these childrens' parents, he replied, "the specialty restaurant."  The parents deposited their children in the main dining room and left them there, under the supervision of the waiter, and went two floors away to enjoy a quiet dinner.  Are you kidding me?  And Celebrity let this happen?

Joey approached the maitre d' again.  And then when I thought Joey was too soft on the guy, I charged into the conversation.  The maitre d' apologized profusely, explaining that nearly 1/3 of the 3,000 people on board were under the age of 18.  He also informed us that 900 guests were either Latin or South American, which he claimed to be highly unusual and that the cultural differences accounted for the parents' and their childrens' behavior.  (Um, okay?  1. We saw the same families throughout the cruise and every single one of those guests, even the kids, had frequent-cruiser cards, so apparently it wasn't unusual at all.  And 2. How does their ethnicity preclude Celebrity from enforcing a modicum of decorum in the main dining room?)  He assured us he'd find us a quiet table in the future.

The rest of our seating arrangements were amenable, although we were disappointed that we were unable to develop any sort of relationship with our waiters, their assistants, or the wine steward, since we bounced around the dining room for the remainder of the cruise.

Our frustration with the service on-board wasn't limited to the dining room.  After shelling out $200 for a massage and a facial, I spent half an hour of my treatment listening to the on-board announcements read in nine different languages.  My aesthetician merely shrugged and said safety regulations mandated that everyone be able to hear the announcements.  This seemed odd, because I could never hear them in the gym or our room.  One bartender had oppressive body odor and another spent half an hour lecturing Joey and me how Slobodan Milosevic was just "doing what he had to do."  Even our room steward seemed to put forward half-hearted service.

Needless to say, a fabulous new ship and haute food do not a perfect cruise make.  It's the people; the little details remembered by the staff that make the experience memorable.  I was so disappointed by Celebrity's dearth in service, it will be a long time before we consider your cruise line again. 

Here's a link to the pictures I took on the ship: https://picasaweb.google.com/100586084762366858227/Cruise?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCJfB1JevhZDvcA&feat=directlink



Sunday was another early morning, as Joey and I squeezed in a short run before attending mass at the church where we got married.  The same priest with the giant ring of jangling keys who performed our rehearsal said mass. While we didn't understand him any more than the first time around, his passion and hand gestures transcended the language barrier.  After mass we enjoyed a capuccino before hopping on a boat to nearby, glitzy Portofino.
In Portofino we lunched at a boardwalk cafe while Joey gawked at the mega-yachts and I coveted every handbag that past.  We walked the manicured streets and peeked into ancient St. Martin's church before ascending to St. George's church on the hill.  After fighting a losing battle with the wind and my dress (yes, Mom, I was wearing underwear, but with not nearly the coverage I needed when my dress flew up and my husband chose to take pictures instead of help), we explored the nearby cemetery.  Still worn out after the Cinque Terre, Joey and I took the ferry back to Santa Margherita and spent our last evening there progressing through several cafes for several courses and several glasses of wine. 
Accidental flasher
Monday morning was our earliest yet; we had to fit in our long run before the 8 am train to Rome.  So at 5:45 we hit the pavement, and ran along the winding road to Portofino.  We had the whole of the Ligurian coast to ourselves; not even the fisherman were awake yet.  The rising sun shimmered over the cerulean sea; the waves crashed into the rocky coast while we ran in the crisp morning air.  It truly was the most amazing run of my entire life.
A few hours and two train rides later, we arrived in the port of Rome, Civitavecchia, for the next leg of our journey: time for the floating buffet!

Here's the link to all my picutres from our time on the Ligurian Coast: https://picasaweb.google.com/100586084762366858227/SantaMargheritaLigure?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCLqd-cmkhsmbgQE&feat=directlink


the cinque terre

Saturday morning Joey and I woke up early.  We'd planned to hike the Cinque Terre; therefore, the broken strap on my walking shoes could be ignored no more.  Good thing Santa Margherita has such cheap shopping!  For yacht owners...

Luckily we managed to find a cute pair of flat sandals with black and brown straps that seemed comfortable enough and didn't break the bank.  Unluckily, I chose not to follow my sisters', parents', or best friend's advice to skip the fashion for the Cinque Terre and just wear tennies.  Even more unfortunate for Joey was my decision not to share this piece of advice with him.  So a flip-flop clad Joey and I, in my cute new shoes, boarded the hour-long train to Vernazza.  Good thing I always carry band-aids in my purse.

Despite the bazillion other tourists who descended upon those same five remote towns that day (seriously, Europe in the fall), the bright colors and stunning views of each tiny village and its surroundings seemed to become more vibrant and more incredible as the day progressed.  I could not believe how blue the water was. 

Halfway between Vernazza and Corniglia.  That's Corniglia in the distance.

The first hour of the steep climb up the mountain between Vernazza and Corniglia was the easy part.  Try going down the other side of that mountain in inappropriate footwear when you are already spatially challenged and uncoordinated.  Even Joey, who is pretty hard to fluster, was mortified at my method of balance as I spread out my arms and hands and plopped one entire leg at a time down each step of the mountain.  I really tried to go down the steps like a normal person, but grace isn't one of my strong suits.

Although we'd scaled a small mountain in flip flops and 90 degree heat while dodging other sweaty people on narrow stairs that should not be shared, the scenery was well worth the effort.  We ambled through the second (technically third, but we skipped Monterosso) town, Corniglia, before we faced "more stairs than line the side of a Mayan pyramid," according to my guidebook, down which I would have to "flop," according to my husband, to reach the next town.  Off I flopped, and we were on our way to Manarola.

The trail to Manarola from Corniglia continues behind the Cornigilia train station, where we found several signs that the trail was closed.  Of course this all didn't register until after we watched the only train for the next half an hour leave, so faced with climbing back up the Mayan pyramid or a bench at the train station, we sat.  I'm not going to lie: I was considerably, disgustingly, sweaty; probably just as smelly (I wasn't about to put my nose in my armpit to find out); my feet were blistered; my shoulders sunburned and my stomach growling (I'd read in my guidebook to find a cafe in the next town so we'd only grazed through the morning - ha, oops).  So as much as I'd originally wanted to hike all the way from Vernazza to Riomaggiore, I wasn't devastated that we had to cheat a little. 

While we sat and waited for our train, the number of would-be hikers increased, and another girl, maybe about 14 years-old, sat next to me on the bench.  Joey and I continued our conversation, and as it reached a lull, the girl looked over at me and said, "I'm from Norway." 

That's all.  Completely matter-of-fact and even more out of the blue. 

Not much for small talk with people I do know, I replied with the nicest thing I could think of: "Okay?" 

And that was the extent of our conversation. 

Joey gave me the "Do you know her" look, to which I replied with the "WTF" look, after which we stifled our snickering until the train came.

Outside Manarola

In Manarola we stopped for gelato.  I ordered a large cone of my favorite: Amarena.  The gorgeous Italian woman behind the counter blessed with long legs and the ability to eat pasta all day every day in her Gucci size 2 pants replied, "you know that's three scoops, right?"

Are you saying something?  Because I just hiked a mountain and I live in Africa.

We drifted from Manarola along the "Via dell'Amore" to the last town, Riomaggiore, where we saw a bride posing for pictures with a huge bouquet of lavender.  Then we took the last train back to Santa Margherita, for naps, showers, and another romantic evening along the Ligurian Sea.


santa margherita ligure

I'd been nervous to return to Santa Margherita Ligure.  I worried that somehow the anticipation and exhilaration that only a bride can feel had softened the edges of my already wonderful memories of the town where Joey and I were married.  My fears that I'd remembered Santa Margherita as fondly and without fault as a mother sees her child, however, were allayed the moment we exited the train station.  Santa Margherita Ligure, with its bright blue skies and puffy white clouds, pastel-colored houses nestled in the rolling green hills, and tall palm trees lined against the azure Ligurian Sea, remained just as breathtaking as it had been on our wedding day.

After much-needed naps and showers, Joey and I strolled hand-in-hand along the shops and cafes lining the waterfront.  We watched the sun set as we dined on Ligurian pesto and gnocchi and carbonara and fresh fish.  Then we climbed the thousand stairs back up to our church.  I can't explain the calm that I felt as Joey held me on the stoop of the church; we sat together in silence for a long time and just watched the moon. 

This posting has been very, very trying for me.  Living in Abuja, compounded by all of the stress from three moves in 6 months, leaving my entire family and everything I had ever known, and moving to Africa, challenged me more than I ever expected.  And when your one constant, the only person with you through it all, also happens to be the only person with you through it all, that person gets to see the good, the bad, and the ugly.  And I can get really.  Really.  Ugly.  So I'm not the only one who suffered during the first six months of our tour.  Joey suffered too.  And so did our marriage. 

I suppose I wasn't afraid as much that Santa Margherita had lost her charm;  I suspect, deep down, I worried that Santa Margherita wouldn't heal the wounds inflicted from this posting, and that we'd leave as bitter as we'd arrived.  I knew that it wasn't Joey's fault that we got posted where we did; I'd had an equal say in his bid list.  But just because your mind knows something doesn't mean your heart will believe it.

But I do believe in true love, and I believe even more that I married my soul-mate.  And maybe it was Santa Margherita or maybe it was our church.  Maybe it was the sea or maybe it was the full moon.  Maybe it was our lovely, old memories or maybe it was the new ones we created this time around.  Nevertheless, three days later when we boarded our train to Rome, Joey and I knew we were going to be okay.

I think it was love.


lessons learned

Travel lessons I should have learned the first time we schlepped around Italy:

1. Train rides suck.  They make me feel like I drank all the vodka in Russia the night before, whether or not I consumed a drop of alcohol.  They are crowded, generally stinky (although after 6 months here, my tolerance for BO is now as high as a Russian's tolerance for vodka), and just altogether unpleasant.  Whose brilliant idea was it to plan a 9-hour train ride from Provence to Santa Margherita? 

2. Europe is not handicap-friendly.  And big, heavy suitcases are big-ass handicaps.  The same brilliant person who planned the 9-hour train ride thought it would be much easier to just lug one bigger suitcase (each) instead of having to juggle two smaller suitcases (each).  Maybe, until the 9-hour train ride included 4 stops, which meant five separate times Joey had to heave my 60-lb suitcase and his 60-lb suitcase down the staircase to the train platform, up into the train, down out of the train and back down one staircase and up another staircase to the next platform.  In 90-degree heat.  Oops.

Yeah, just because Aix-en-Provence is close to the French Riviera, and Santa Margherita is on the Italian Riviera does not mean you should take a train between them.  Maybe if you take a day in Nice.  Or maybe if a direct train overnight existed (it doesn't), it might be a tolerable trip.  But definitely don't do it the way we did.  By the time we left Aix-en-Provence and stopped in Nice, Ventimiglia and Genoa before arriving in Santa Margherita, we were completely and utterly exhausted.  And I didn't even carry the suitcases.  Which brings me to #3:

Pick one destination and stay there.  Going from A to B to C to D to E is expensive, it's exhausting, and by the end of the trip, it's just plain annoying.  Packing and unpacking and repacking your suitcase gets progressively harder, especially if you buy any sort of souvenir.  Particularly if you've been in Nigeria for six months and are struck, first numbly, and then overwhelmingly, by your innate, American consumerism that sat dormant during the last several months.  Trust me.  Go somewhere you can explore for a few days and from where you can easily explore a few other destinations for a few days.   A to B to A to C is infinitely easier.

Oh, and wearing high heels because your travel shoes are broken and you'll have slightly more room in your suitcase is beyond inane.  Who would be dumb enough to do that? 


provence day 5: avignon

Papal Palace in the background

Thursday was our last day with Sujata, and we spent it in Avignon.  Every year, thousands of thespians descend on Avignon for its annual theater festival, with which our visit just happened to coincide.  Oh. Yay.  It was packed and the street performers weren't shy.  But I'd still return to Avignon, with its thick medieval ramparts, imposing papal palace, and shady plane trees, just not in the middle of July.


We spent the day the same as we'd spent the others.  Eating.  Drinking.  Shopping.  Wandering.  Joey and Sujata bemoaning my excessive photography habit.  By the end of the day when we deposited Sujata at the train station, we were sad to see her go, but I'm pretty sure she'd had enough of Joey's driving and my camera.  She'd made a great traveling companion over the last ten days, and hopefully she'll be willing to brave us again for another fun vacation.

Although it was Bastille Day, Joey and I were both tired and crabby, so we crashed back at the cottage.  The next morning we were up early to check-out; a simple process made infinitely more difficult by the language barrier and Vauvenargues' lack of ATM.  But everything worked itself out, we dropped off the rental car and boarded the first of many trains for the long trip to Santa Margherita Ligure. 
(Don't worry, I narrowed them down after we returned to Abuja).  

provence day 4: the luberon and the lavender

Wednesday was lavender day.  Or it was supposed to be.  I assumed that all of Provence would just be full of lavender.  That the train would suddenly round a corner and you'd see nothing but fields of purple.  This is not the case.  Aix-en-Provence is actually too far south for lavender, so we really had to search for it.

We began our hunt in a darling little village called Lourmarin.  As we parked the car it began to rain,
so we ducked into a dark and cozy cafe to wait it out.  In between down- pours we found the Chateau de Lourmarin, a huge old castle with a wine cave underneath.  After sampling every wine in the cave, we wove our way through the Luberon all day, stopping for "degustation" (wine tasting) and trying to find one field of purple.  I could have explored every town where we stopped to ask for directions to the lavender.  Each one was more picturesque than the next; they say some see Paris through rose-colored glasses, but I saw the Luberon through rose (and Cotes du Rhone and Burgundy) filled glasses for sure.  Several hours later, after many miles of forests, vineyards, sunflowers, wine, laughs (especially after one of the cellar masters asked Sujata if she worked for us), and even more complaints about Joey's driving, we finally found the lavender.  I couldn't believe how good it smelled when I rolled down my window.

Our light heads soon turned into heavy stomachs, and after an entire day in the car, with shaky knees and sighs of relief, we returned to the cottage and piled out of the car.  While Sujata napped, Joey wished for his pillow but accompanied me to finally explore the tiny town where we'd been staying all week.  It didn't take long to walk through Vauvenargues (pronounced Voo-ven-ahg) and find the 17th-century Chateau of Vauvenargues, burial site of Pablo Picasso.

Chateau of Vauvenargues
We employed our cottage kitchen one more time that night, cooking chicken and pasta in a delicious pancetta, arrabiatta sauce.  Exhausted and thorougly defeated, Joey passed out early at the cottage while Sujata and I wandered back down to Vauvenargues to investigate the sounds of the pre-Bastille Day celebration heard from our patio.  Upon realizing we would have stood out like sore thumbs at the celebration, we wandered back to Picasso's chateau under the moonlight.  It was so. creepy.  We both swore we heard a ghost's cackle, and ran full-speed back to our cottage.  We woke poor Joey up to calm us down, then Sujata and I talked long after he fell back asleep, until we were too tired to let any ghosts keep us awake either.

provence day 3: cassis and arles

Early Tuesday morning we drove to Cassis.  And I thought Marseille was breathtaking.  Maybe I'm partial to quaint little towns, especially after brushing shoulders with all the tourists in France's second-largest city the entire day before, but even though it's only a few kilometers away from Marseille, the tiny village of Cassis with its brightly colored buildings and pretty little fishing boats was now my new favorite place. 

After devouring an assortment of fresh pastries from the bakery (seriously, can someone tell me how the French stay so skinny?), we took a boat tour of the Calanques.  We were the first people on the boat and so excited to grab a seat right up front.  Then the captain came out and said "Le Douche."  This apparently means, "You will take a shower if you sit there."  We all figured a little seaspray never hurt anybody and sat tight.

The stark contrast of the white limestone cliffs and deep blue water was overshadowed by the hilarity of our predicament.  I really can't think of the last time I even came close to laughing so hard.  Our boat tour was straight out of an amusement park water ride, or maybe in Sujata's case, a wet t-shirt contest.  I almost peed my pants when, after half an hour of just getting soaked, the boat hit a huge wake and sent Sujata flying out of her seat.  It still makes me laugh out loud to think about it.  We returned to shore, soaking wet, salty, and more than a little seasick in my case.  While we dried off under the sun, we ate our slightly salty and soggy lunch (we had optimistically brought a picnic on the boat) and Sujata and I entertained ourselves with inappropriate remarks about the inappropriate fat ladies baring it all on the topless beach.

Joey drove the hilly and winding rode back to our cottage.  I suppose he should have known better than to rent a stick shift with two outspoken women in the car, and maybe Sujata and I could have complained less considering the driving conditions.  But with our stomachs already on strike after the bumpy boat ride, Sujata and I kept Joey informed of this fact at every hairpin turn.  It was a fun ride for all and definitely time for a nap.

Look familiar?
A few hours later, refreshed after naps and showers, we headed to Arles for the evening.  Arles was remarkably more muted than Cassis but still full of history and beauty.  We saw the spot where Van Gogh painted his famous Cafe Terrace at Night and some wonderfully old Roman ruins, including baths from the era of Constantine and an even older arena that is still in use today.

I could have spent days more exploring all the nooks and crannies of Arles.  I became terribly disconcerted when my camera battery flashed red, though much to the delight of my traveling companions.  Joey exclaimed, "I get my wife back!" Sujata concurred.  Given I took over 2,000 pictures on our vacation, I think they may have had a point.  Plus the slight sprinkle had turned into more of a steady rain, so we decided to head back to Aix-en-Provence for sushi.  After Sujata and I enjoyed a few too many lychee kir royales, Joey patiently drove us home to sleep it off for our next excursion.  Tomorrow was lavender day!

provence: marseille

The next morning we rode the bus back to the train station to pick up our rental car.  This occasion marked just one of the many times we were so thankful to have Sujata along for more than just entertainment value when her fluent French saved us from getting screwed on the car rental.  We piled into our little car, cranked up the tunes - I'm not going to lie that I was beyond excited to hear Britney Spears on the radio for the first time in months - and drove to Marseille.

After about half an hour of winding down through the imposing limestone walls of Provence, we caught our first view of the Mediterranean.  I know I've said it before, but there is something so thrilling to me about the water.  The sun shined hot and shimmered over the pure blue water and I declared I wasn't leaving.  Marseille reminded me very much of the town where Joey and I got married, with its rows of sailboats and terra cotta roofs.  It felt amazing to be back on the scenic riviera, even if it was the French side.  So we walked, I took too many pictures, and we walked some more.

Notre-Dame de la Garde on the horizon
After an already long day of trudging through the crowded seaside town in the thick July heat (and trying, unsuccessfully, to find a new pair of shoes), we climbed up what Joey will swear is the steepest hill in the world, only to be met with many stairs and another hill on top of that.  Finally, we reached the beautiful Notre-Dame de la Garde, which, in all fairness to my husband, sits at the highest natural point in Marseille at 532 feet above sea level.  When Sujata remarked that the view was worth the climb, an exhausted, sweating Joey remarked, "Whose side are you on, anyway?!"

With a sweaty, crabby Joey overlooking Marseille.  I climbed the hill with one shoe hanging off my foot so I don't know what his problem is.
Gradually we made our way back down to the sea, where we found a cafe in the shade.  I decided to try the kelly-green drink I'd seen all over Paris, "Get 27."  I quickly discovered the reason Sujata had warned me not to bother.  I might as well have been drinking Scope on the rocks.  My throat still seizes up when I think about it.  Ew.

We found a darling little cafe overlooking the boardwalk for dinner.  I feasted on mussels and french fries, while Joey stuffed himself with bouilabaisse.  Then, completely stuffed and worn out, we walked back to the car and returned to our little cottage to pass out.

provence: aix-en-provence

Joey came home from work yesterday and said, "You updated your blog!"  Then he frowned and said, "You went from Paris straight to Des Moines."

Write. Your. Own. Blog.

So I'll go back to Paris, where early Sunday morning Joey, Sujata, and I caught the high-speed train to Aix-en-Provence (pronounced "X").  While hurrying through the train station, my sweet husband rolled his suitcase over my sandal and the strap snapped.  My favorite travel shoes, the most comfortable, the most versatile, and most importantly, my only pair of travel shoes were immediately shot.  I flipped out but we were late so with a huff I shuffled my dangling shoe hurriedly to our train.

Joey and Sujata outside the train station in Paris.  Sujata dubbed Joey, "Gay Don Johnson," or "GDJ" for short, to show her fondness for his jacket.
The train was full of colorful characters, including an unsolicited translation of "ham and cheese" from a guy who then deliberately sat on Joey's hand and a woman who squatted in front of our seats.  Don't worry if this has you raising an eyebrow and thinking, "WTF?"  We couldn't explain it either, but by the time the lady squatted (she even put her arms out in front of her to balance), we were laughing so hard we had doubled over in tears.  Then Sujata and I spent the rest of the four-hour trip torturing Joey with girl talk.  Craig/Tex better watch out: I'm pretty sure Joey's still plotting his revenge for ditching him with the two of us for five days.

Our plan was to rent a car at the train station and take day trips from our cottage right outside Aix-en-Provence.  Unfortunately almost everything in France closes on Sunday, including the car rental (who vacations on Sunday, seriously?), so we had to wait an hour for the proprietor of our cottage to pick us up (the high speed train station is situated a several kilometers from town).  In the meantime we entertained ourselves with perverse translations on the train station restaurant menu.  "Salty softness," anyone? (Or a quiche, same thing.)

Finally, Nathalie picked us up and drove us through the gorgeous, rolling, bright green and limestone foothills to Aix-en-Provence.  She dropped us off at the breathtaking La Rotonde fountain, which also happened to be the beginning of the outdoor market, and arranged to return in a few hours to take us to her cottage.  While I waddled in my broken shoe and took a thousand pictures, Joey and Sujata shopped.  They bought fresh bread, homemade sausages, cheese and raspberry jam, ripe peaches and figs.  They even found white truffles.

La Rotonde fountain in Aix-en-Provence

It was markedly hotter than Paris, so after sweating through the market we proceeded to cool off with some pastis for Joey and Sujata and local rose for me.  Then we had to try some ice cream on our way to the little grocery store where we found an entire wall of wine under eight euro.  Amazing.  The three of us left with seven bottles and a bottle of Ricard, among a few other essential items, and slowly meandered back to our pick-up point.  In the meantime we tried to tour the inside of a church, which quickly proved a bad idea with our wine bottles clanging together louder than the bells.  We giggled our way to the fountain.
Upon our arrival at our cottage, we were all thrilled to find it clean and bright and nestled in the most gorgeous valley of Montagne Sainte-Victoire with an incredible view and even more incredible sunset.  That night we feasted on our purchases from the market followed by homemade, white truffle gnocchi.  And several bottles of wine.  I believe the French have a saying about living life like that. Joie de vivre, amen.


des moines

I'd scheduled my trip to Des Moines such that I gave notice to my old job, worked the last two weeks, got on a plane (or 3), spent a whirlwind 8 days at home, got another plane, and started my new job the next day.  Which was supposed to be yesterday.  Now I don't have a concrete start date and am quickly running out of things to do, especially with M. doing the breakfast dishes and making my bed (I love her), so I figured I'd elaborate on my trip to Des Moines.  Maybe I'll even start blogging about R&R. 

You know you're homesick when you're admiring the whitewashed buildings against the brilliant blue sea in Santorini and thinking about Des Moines.  Emphasis on sick.  So with the promise of new, more lucrative employment, over the last few days of R&R in July (yes, over dinner at some darling outdoor cafe in Rome.  I did emphasize sick.), Joey and I discussed a trip to Des Moines.  Together.  Until we returned to Abuja and started pricing airfare.  Three thousand dollars a ticket.  Yep.  Three thousand dollars.  When my sister came to visit she paid half that.  And guess what?  Roundtrip prices from the US to Abuja are always half that of those from Abuja to the US.  Why?  Supply and demand.  What a bunch of shit. 

Naturally, Joey and I reeled at those prices and said nevermind to our trip to Des Moines.  But I still wanted to go home.  So badly.  And with time off in a new job uncertain and other trips already booked (a word of advice to new people moving abroad: maybe in month 1 you think you won't want to go home and you should use your time off to explore the world.  By month 7 you will not feel the same way.  Plan the trip home.  That's what it's there for.), this was the only time I could go.  And then Joey was offered a training in DC in the middle of September.  Which meant he got a ticket to the US.  So we bit the bullet and bought my ticket to Des Moines.  We ended up spending the same amount we'd planned.  Only one of us got to go to Des Moines and the other one gets to go to Washington.  And not at the same time.  But he gets Five Guys and Ben's Chili Bowl and I can assure you my fat kid husband with a ridiculously unfair metabolism is cool with that.

I thought it'd be fun to surprise my parents.  It'd been eight months since we'd seen each other, and they weren't expecting to see me until early 2012.  So, with some careful scheming between my sisters, our Aunt Missy, we arranged to surprise Mom and Dad at their friends' house.  So after 30 long hours traveling (that's a hard journey to make alone.  Especially because husbands are not only fun to talk to, but they make great airplane seat extensions too), Mal and Lizz picked me up at the airport, from where we met Aunt Missy and surprised Mom and Dad at their friends' house.  Lizz recorded their reactions on Mallory's phone; here's the link:   http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=614267692534 I wish I was tech savvy enough to just post the video but unfortunately I'm not.  Hopefully it works even if you're not friends with Mallory on Facebook.  Anyway, Mom and Dad were beyond surprised and a few tears were shed by all.  Their friends, Ann and Mark, cooked the perfect first-meal-in-America-in-eight-months anyone could ask for: cheeseburgers with fresh jalapenos, Iowa sweet corn and Costco cake.  After a lovely dinner, the whole Soda family piled in Mallory's new convertible and Mom and Dad promptly got shit on by a flock of geese flying above.  Mallory and Lizz and I thought it was hilarious....I digress.  Mom and Dad put clean sheets on my old bed and I slept like a baby.  It felt amazing.

The next morning Mallory, Mom and Dad and I drove through a gorgeous Iowa thunderstorm to Council Bluffs for a violet-themed birthday party.  This time Mom and Dad got to partake in the surprise as I hugged my grandparents.  When my grammy saw me she reacted exactly the same way as my dad: her face went completely blank, then confused, shocked, and finally into a huge smile.  What a fun surprise.  I spent the afternoon catching up with my mom's side of the family; I can't believe how much my cousins' kids have grown.  After a tour of my cousin Tiffany's beautiful new home, we headed back to Des Moines for a delicious spaghetti dinner with my dad's side of the family.  Since Mallory had already posted the video of my parents' surprise on Facebook I didn't get to surprise my other grandma, but it was still great to see everybody.  More disbelief at how big and smart my cousins' kids have become as I met the newest member of the family.  Then it was back home to my comfy old bed.

Mallory and I spent the whole next day together.  Hot yoga followed by mani/pedis, then some shopping at my favorite department store and then more shopping and lunch downtown Des Moines.  That night my Uncle Tom treated us to a fabulous dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Des Moines. 

Tuesday I had lunch with my friend Allison and her beautiful baby girl, Molly, and then spent an hour wandering in childlike amazement at the grocery store while I happily sipped my Starbucks that I'd purchased there.  Though I'm loathe to admit it, God, how I'd missed the suburbs.  Somehow I managed to spend $200 on protein powder and candy.  Then my sisters and cousins and I spent the night at the bar.  It was a blast, which is a good thing since I spent the whole next day paying for it.

From left: Lizz, me, Mal, P and Maria.  Yes, Maria and I are each holding two beers.  It was two-fers night.  Ouch.
Wednesday I was up early for coffee with my friend, Lee, where I ran into my lunch date, Kate.  Only in Des Moines!  Kate and I caught up a few hours later over sushi.  I think we could have talked for days.  Dinner that night was low-key at home with the whole family; the only person missing was Joey.  We laughed so hard Mallory snarfed her milk. 

Thursday Lizz and I spent a good two hours at Target.  She was very patient with my need to marvel up and down every aisle at a snail's pace, so afterward I treated her to Mexican for lunch.  My mom met us and she took me to Trader Joe's, where I bought more candy and some cheese, and then to the running store for new shoes.  Thursday night my friend Lauren took me out for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory and then to see her new photography studio.  It was really inspiring to see how far she's come with what was once a hobby!

Friday Mom and I explored Costco and then since we had some extra time but food in the car, she was patient enough to wait in the car while I ran in Old Navy and DSW.  Then she dropped me off at the dentist, went home, unloaded the food, and came back to pick me up.  I bet it really made her miss the good old days of playing chauffeur to three busy girls.  That night Dad's whole family came over for pizza for his birthday.  I'm so glad we all got a chance to see each other again before I left.

Saturday I sat around and did nothing all day.  I was exhausted and although my original flight was scheduled to leave the next day, my best friend was scheduled to come to town Monday, and I'd hoped to be able to leave Tuesday instead.  So I didn't run any of my remaining errands under the assumption I had an extra day.  Then Saturday night we enjoyed dinner with Mom's family again.

Sunday morning my dear husband woke me up bright and early at 6 am to tell me he couldn't change my flight.  I knew I should have bought the meat sooner!  So quickly I took a shower and drove to the grocery store, where I filled a cart with steaks and sour cream and ricotta cheese.  At the check-out I realized I had forgotten my credit card (why do I always do that?), so I had to drive back home, find the card, drive back to the store and get my food.  I stuffed everything in the freezer and went to church with my dad. 

After Mass, Dad and I ran the last of my errands, while I returned things to Target and Old Navy (it's amazing what you will buy when you haven't been there in 8 months) and found an anniversary gift for Joey.  Then I packed my suitcase, we stuffed the half-frozen meat in a cooler and headed to the airport.

The trip was a total whirlwind and wiped me out, but it was so worth it.  I was in such a better mood on the way back I only bitched at one person in line to the plane to Abuja (if I can feel your breath on my neck, I'm going to let you know I need my personal space).  Somehow the meat arrived still cold and I couldn't have been happier to see my smiling husband, despite his buzzed head (buzzed as soon as he dropped me off at the airport a week earlier).  M. was delighted with the pink Drake tee shirt I brought for her and cried when I gave her little girl some sidewalk chalk, a jump rope, crayons and Sponge Bob coloring book.  She and Joey have been quickly picking off the giant tub of jelly beans from Costco over the last two days.  I'm enjoying temporary unemployment and quality time with the boys.  And tonight I'll be enjoying some thick Iowa ribeyes for dinner.

i am updating my blog.

The 30-hour trip back to Abuja wasn't nearly as exhausting as the 30- hour trip to Des Moines.  Maybe it was the margarita in the Minneapolis airport that cost as much as my salad, a better selection of movies on the plane or fun playing with my new Nook reader.  I know having a window seat and the accompanying aisle seat on the flight to Abuja made a difference.  But I think what really made the trip back to Abuja more palatable was how calm, centered and happy I felt after seeing all of my friends and family back home.  I can't explain it, but for some reason just being home and sitting on the couch next to my dad; having a real, face-to-face conversation with my mom; enjoying manis and pedis with Mallory and wandering Target with Lizz; going out for drinks with my cousins and playing with their beautiful kids (not in that order); and all the wonderful lunches and dinners with friends and family in between made me feel so much stronger.  It felt incredible to take hot yoga classes and run in the crisp, clean, Iowa air.  I ate cheeseburgers and sweet corn and pasta and sushi and key lime cheesecake.  And I got to see and hug and talk to almost all of the most important people in my life, and for some reason, now I feel like I can handle living here a little bit easier.  Maybe it's the freezer packed with Iowa beef I smuggled in my suitcase.  But I think it's all the love and support that truly only family can provide, even from 5,000 miles away.