Ode to NY

Oh NY. The things you make my heart feel.

I absolutely love going back to my second home away from my real home in Atlanta and my actual home now in St. Pete (that was confusing). I love it because of all the things that city makes me feel, what it reminds of, and how I’m so happy that I no longer live there.

Yes, I said I’m happy I no longer live there. Odd how one can feel such conflicting feelings, yet it’s the truth.

My time spent in NY was a roller coaster ride during college. Becoming an adult in that city two weeks after 9/11 happened was tumultuous, emotional, rocky, overwhelming, and crazy fun. I miss it but I really don’t. Mostly I just miss the food and my friends. I don’t really miss the feeling of needing to be everywhere, doing everything, all the time, always.

But man, when I visit, we really pack it in. Usually, I’m with my BFF Denise and her husband Vinnie, sequestered away in the suburbs, but this time we were Brooklyn people, all the way. We stayed with our good friends Jenny and Joe (remember them, from the crazy beautiful Cali wedding?) in Clinton Hill, a super adorable south Brooklyn neighborhood with charming brownstones and vistas for days. Apparently, Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis live down the street from them, so it must be a hot neighborhood, right?

The first night, we got there super late, like 10:30p, but we still went for a quick bite to eat at this adorably delicious spot named Walter’s. It was really dark and romantic inside, so no pix were bothered with.

The next day, we tried to sleep in because the sounds of NY are CRAZY obnoxious to me now that I don’t live amongst the sirens, birds, and children screaming outside. Needless to say, I slept like crap. We got up, made our way to another adorable lunch spot, took down a bottle of cava, and proceeded to walk all over the place. I ended up with 12,000 steps that day, so a success all around.

We settled in for a little while at a park in DUMBO and enjoyed the beautiful weather, which clearly we brought with us from Florida.

amazing views of south Manhattan

amazing views of south Manhattan

The night, Jenny and Joe made reservations for nearly my entire bridesmaid roster and partners at Lido’s in Harlem, where we gorged ourselves on delicious Italian food and lots and lots of wine. Jenny was like the mom of the group and just ordered everything for everyone, and all I had to do was eat and drink. I highly suggest you get yourself a friend like that. We laughed and laughed and laughed and Timmy and I almost came to blows during a newlywed-style game.

The question: Which celebrity is our number one hall pass?

My answer for Timmy: Chris Hemsworth (I won)

Timmy’s answer for me: JEFF GOLDBLUM

What the hell…the marriage is off people! (FYI, the answer I wrote down was Keanu Reeves circa “Speed”…yummmmmmm)

Later that night, somehow we all ended up with Pez dispensers because Joe went to the Walgreens across the street to get a Tide pen for Timmy, was gone for like 20 minutes, and showed up with Pez for everyone. It was weird and generous, all at the same time.

The next day, we went to Mission Chinese food where we annoyed our waitress by asking her every 5 seconds if there were peanuts in anything (because Timmy’s allergic), walked half the Brooklyn Bridge, got ice cream, then back to the airport. It was such an incredibly fast weekend, but it filled my heart to the maximum. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than see these amazing people and love and laugh with them.

Dammit, I love my friends.

♥, VB

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Panama

This last month has been exhausting. There’s been a lot of traveling, a lot of stress, and a lot of heartbreak. There’s also been a lot of joy and hope, so let’s start with the first story and make our way through the rest later.

The weekend after our Bach party (as in 3 days later) we flew to Panama for a friend’s wedding in a remote location off the coast called Bocas del Toro. My father’s side of the family all still lives in Panama City, so imagine my surprise when I ended up being the first in my entire family to visit Bocas. I’m such a world traveler.

On the flight from Atlanta to Panama, we got upgraded to First Class and holy shit I don’t think I can ever go back to being a regular citizen. That was legit. AAAAAANND I totally forgot that my friends’ gelato company, Honeysuckle, is now served on first class flights on Delta, so that was definitely fun and filled me with pride at how cool my friends are.

We sat next to two gentlemen that were THE definition of the odd couple, talking extremely loudly, making each other laugh, and just genuinely becoming friends. It was a much older white man who was super overserved with wine (as we all were) and a SUPER tall black man who, as we learned later on the flight, used to play for the Atlanta Braves in the 70s and was roommates with Dale Murphy. How cool is that??

My cousin picked us up from the airport and drove us to our hotel around 9:30p, which gave us just enough time to shower and fall asleep only to get up at 5 am to make our flight to Bocas. We got into the cab, told the driver Albrook Airport, and took off.

About 30 minutes later, I had the feeling that something wasn’t right. I had purposefully picked our hotel because it was only 15 minutes from the Albrook airport, so I signaled to Timmy to tell our driver, and lo and behold, we were one exit away from the WRONG AIRPORT. So we turned around and proceeded to take one of the most dangerous drives back in order to hopefully make our flight.

I had neglected to tell Timmy about driving in Central and Latin America. It’s really fun when you think about it: lane markers are really just suggestions, traffic lights are there for funsies, pedestrians get dropped off on the side of the highway, including school children, and the emergency lane is really for when you want to go faster. Timmy, bless his heart, almost had a heart attack.

And I just laughed quietly to myself.

We ended up making our flight by about 20 minutes. Thank god it was a small airport and not the international one, because we would’ve been screwed. And I had amped myself up to have a good ole, knock down drag out fight about payment since the driver was the one who messed up, but he charged us fairly and all was good.

We landed in Bocas after about a 45 minute flight and wow. What a cool freaking town. It’s laid back (think: not rich and glamorous resort living), friendly, and cheap. We stay on Isla Colon, the main island, which was about a 15 minute water taxi ride away from Bastimentos, where Jasmin and Todd were getting married. Our hotel was ADORABLE and definitely worth it.

We immediately found OUR spot, a teeny little bar restaurant with a surf/dive shop in the back. This town is clearly a surfer’s town, as everyone was unkempt, sun bleached, and suuuuuuuper laid back (read: high). This place served the BEST FISH TACOS EVER. No, I’m not kidding. They were amazing, and we went back again before we left for a repeat meal.

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The day of the wedding, we decided to take a day trip to Starfish Beach. We took a $35 cab about 30 minutes through the jungle to the other side of Colon. This was not a fun ride. The streets are “paved” and very very very hilly. It’s a miracle I didn’t get sick.

From our drop off spot, we took a water taxi about 5 minutes to the beach and OMG. This place. Unbelievable. It’s called Starfish Beach because there are starfish EVERYWHERE. You’re not allowed to pick them up but you can touch them underwater. It was just so cool.

We were pretty hungry when we got there but knew that the wedding was a few hours away, so we decided to split a meal at one of the little restaurant/shacks on the beach. There were only about 100 people on this remote beach, with a few spots to get food and drinks. We had brought the beer (which was like 85 cents for pretty delicious beer) and ordered a lobster with creole sauce from a dude who spoke perfect English. Then the coolness started.

We were told to go pick our lobster. Here we are thinking, “Oh from a tank. Cool.” Nope. FROM THE WATER.

Then we’re told to take a seat. Here we are thinking, “Ok, one of these tables.” Nope. THE TABLE IN THE WATER.

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Then he brings out the food. Here we are thinking, “This will probably be pretty good.” Nope. THE BEST LOBSTER I’VE EVER HAD.

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We clearly highly recommend checking this place out.

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The only time we were taken advantage for being tourists was on the water taxi over to Bastimentos to the Red Frog Beach Resort for the wedding. We didn’t get an itinerary in our gift bag, so I was going by the wedding website which said the wedding started at 4:30p. Knowing how long it takes Timmy to get ready (AGES), I said 4, so he’d be ready on time. We boarded the water taxi, paid the driver, and headed out.

First, he lied and said English was his first language even though it clearly wasn’t. Then, we stopped for gas (without telling us first) and asked for more money (which we didn’t give him). Then he dropped us off at the wrong dock at the island even though there were only 2 and I clearly didn’t know which one we were supposed to go to (side note: the resort is the only thing on that island. He clearly should’ve known). Thankfully, he was still close enough to come back and pick us up because at this point, Timmy and I didn’t have any more cash for a new water taxi. Silently and clearly disgruntled, he drove us to the other marina and HAD THE NERVE to tell me it was because my Spanish was so bad that he didn’t know where he was going.

F*%k You, sir. Clearly, you’re an idiot.

Finally we end up getting to the resort, which then entailed a golf cart ride to the actual wedding location, and by the time we arrived, it was 4:17. On time, right? Wrong! Apparently the wedding had been moved up to 4p, so we were late. AND YOU ALL KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT BEING LATE.

The Bride and her bridesmaids were already at the top of the stairs and I can’t even explain how bad that feels. We did it once before for a wedding in Beaufort, SC where the church was surrounded by 25 other churches and we got super confused as to which one we were supposed to go to. We ended up running into the church right before the bride, and I do mean, RIGHT before the bride and I’ve never felt so bad in my life.

Cue a second time doing this in Panama. We apologized profusely and explain what our taxi driver did (which apparently happened to a few people at the wedding too), and ran down the stairs only to be seated about 4 minutes before the wedding started.

Whew.

After the ceremony, they served fresh coconuts and I drank that sucker down in record time. We made our way over to the cocktail hour which was in a really cute hut overlooking a spectacular view.

And it was also in direct sunlight with no fans. I’m not going to lie, I don’t think I saw anyone use napkins for anything other than wiping off the profuse amount of sweat torentially downpouring from every inch of skin. Welcome to life on the equator. Thank god we were all wearing white.

The party moved back to the ceremony site where we ate, danced, and caught up with old friends. I heard someone say that I was Todd’s oldest friend present at the wedding, which just made my heart warm. I’ve known that dude since 1st grade, and he’s been solid ever since.

We were able to get back to our hotel much later that night so Timmy could shower. And then in the morning he showered again. And then he showered after breakfast. He took 5 showers in 18 hours. I’ve never laughed so hard at someone being unable to control their bodily perspiration. Did you realize that knees and ankles can sweat?

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We made it back to Panama City where my cousin took us on a whirlwind driving tour of Panama. I hadn’t been back to Panama in over a decade, since my Abuelita’s funeral, and holy shit, this city is insane. It looks like Dubai. The entire downtown looked NOTHING like that the few times I came to visit when I was younger. It’s really incredible.

We got dropped off at our amazingly beautiful Marriott for a quick snooze and another shower for Timmy, and then we were ready to meet the family for dinner. We went to a restaurant in Casco Viejo, which is the oldest part of Panama that they’ve beautifully restored. It looks a lot like Viejo San Juan, with its cobbled streets, white walls, and beautiful architecture and plazas. This was Timmy’s opportunity to meet nearly all of my dad’s side of the family, and I was so happy we were able to fit in a quick visit. It’s been so long since I’ve seen them, and it was so so so fun. And Timmy was a HUGE hit (when isn’t he, really). All in all, it was a fantastic but too quick 4 days.

Thanks and congratulations again to Jasmin and Todd! You gave us a reason to come to Panama to celebrate your love. We both couldn’t believe how gorgeous Jasmin looked (not that it was surprising since she’s already beautiful), I mean really stunning, and Todd couldn’t have been more happy to have all his friends and family in one place. We love you guys! Panama, we’ll be back, don’t you worry.

♥, VB

 

Italy, the Last Day: San Sano, Siena, and Life Changes

I’ve been putting off writing this post because it makes me sad. Sad to think our week in Italy is already THREE WEEKS AGO. At the time it didn’t feel like the week was moving fast, which Timmy and I commented on a number of times since we were so afraid the days were going to speed by without us knowing it. But each day passed normally and at an even tempo, allowing us to enjoy every minute of every day, but still, poof, it was over like that. Writing about our last day makes it crystal clear that this trip is ever so quickly becoming in the past.

Our last day in Italy was my second favorite day. After I’d gotten over the puking and drunkenness of the day before, we decided to take our time this day. Originally planning to go to Bologna and Prato, we decided earlier in the week to use our last day to sleep, relax, and take our time. We woke up, finally learned how to work the coffee maker in the villa (believe me, this was a freaking ordeal the entire week. I finally found the instructions, and it still took me a day to work it correctly), and sat outside to enjoy the beautiful morning.

San Sano, a town so small you can’t even find it on Google Maps, even when you zoom all the way in, is absolutely adorable. The town had a monastery that was converted into villas, with a small restaurant (that we only ate at once, unfortunately), a little store, a church, and vineyard. That was it. We were surrounded on all sides by grapes and olive trees. It was beautiful. We spent the morning walking around and enjoying this beautiful town. Warning: I tried to narrow down the pictures to include in this post, but I just couldn’t. The pictures don’t do this town justice; the views were unbelievable.

After touring the cuteness of San Sano, we took about a 15 minute drive to Castello di Brolio on a recommendation from the Muriccis. It was incredible, and we realized later, funnily enough, it ended up being a recommended spot in our guidebook for wine tastings! Apparently, the original owner of this castle, which overlooked miles and miles and miles of Tuscan hills, was the original creator of the Chianti wine recipe. Pretty cool huh? The property also had its own church, which was small but beautiful.

The castle itself was pretty, but the views…holy shit, I can’t even explain. These were the types of views you can only see in your mind’s eye. To see it in person was just unreal.

My favorite pictures came from this part of our day. Timmy wanted to recreate a picture he loved of his father, and I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever taken.

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I also snapped an excellent one of Timmy taking a selfie. 🙂

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After our trip to the Castle, we had a free wine tasting with our tour tickets, bought some wine, and headed to Siena, about 30 minutes away. My mom told me the Duomo in Siena was one of her favorite places in Italy she’d ever seen, so I was super excited to get there and see what she meant. The town itself is on a ginormous hill; Timmy and I took one look at the climb, and we almost decided HELL NO. But, cleverly enough, there were escalators that took you up the hill, so thank god for that transportation relief.

Once we got there, we were amazed. This small medieval town was so cute and so beautiful. We walked towards the Piazza del Duomo, with Santa Maria di Scala across from the entrance to the Duomo. The façade of the Duomo was unbelievable. The sun was starting to set, so we sat outside and took it all in.

We got tickets to see the major sites (Duomo, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the Baptistry, and the Crypt). When we entered the Duomo, I don’t think I’ve ever been more overwhelmed at the beauty of something in my entire life. Timmy said later that he got emotional inside the Duomo as well. We totally got why my mom loved it so much.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It was constructed with black and white marble, there was art everywhere, including the floors, ceilings, and walls, with carved busts of all the popes lining the entire interior of the cathedral. It was enormous. They had planned on making this cathedral the largest in the world, but ran out of money, which was lucky because they realized after that the foundation could never have supported the additions anyway.

If you go to Siena, this had better be a stop for you. I can’t imagine trying to do this in the summer because of the crowds, so try to go when you have time to wander and not feel pressure or anxiety. It’s worth every second.

I tried to keep the photos to a minimum on this post, but believe me, they don’t do this Cathedral any justice.

Afterwards, we went to the Piazza del Campo, home of the famous Palazzo Publico, Torre del Mangia, and the Palio di Siena, a twice-annual horse race that gives me anxiety just thinking about it. The sun was about to set and cast the most incredible light on the Piazza, so we sat down for our last dinner in Italy at Alla Speranza, while a group of singers sang songs on the other side of the Piazza. It was magical.

The day, from start to finish, was perfect. So many memories from this week, I don’t think my heart can contain them all without bursting. This was truly the trip of a lifetime. Thank you to the Sacinos for donating your villa and being so generous. Without you, we would never have had an opportunity like this to make these experiences a part of our lives.

Oh, I almost forgot to share our life changing moment, in case you were wondering…

We got engaged at Castello Di Brolio. 🙂

More on that story later.

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♥, VB

Italy Day 6: The Cooking Class

Oh man, this day might have been my favorite day of the week (you’ll read about the other favorite day soon). I had been looking forward to this day for weeks, and finally, we got to check it off my life bucket list.

A cooking class in Italy. It was as amazing as it sounds.

We started out the day with no food in our bellies and espresso when we arrived at Ristorante Malborghetto around 9 AM. Owned and run by the incredibly talented Chef Simone Muricci and his wife Alessia, he is a true Tuscan chef, teaching us true Tuscan recipes. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!

We began by receiving our own embroidered aprons, with our names and the date of our cooking class. They were quite possibly the cutest gifts I’ve ever received with purchase. 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe restaurant itself is mighty small, but it felt so homey. We absolutely loved this place, and I think we’re still going through withdrawals from having been away from it for so long now.

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We were led to the back of the house and promptly began assembling dessert, tiramisu. Holy cow this was an easy recipe, and the lack of an overwhelming coffee taste made this my favorite tiramisu ever. We prepared it first so that it could have time to set in the fridge while we created the rest of the menu.

Next up was my favorite dish of all time, pasta with bolognese sauce (also known as ragù alla bolognese in Italy). If I could bathe in it, I would. We started by grinding the vegetables (red onion, celery, and carrots) in the grinder, which Chef said he liked best because of the high water content that came out of grinding vs. dicing. Then we sauteed those down, and added the rest of the ingredients: ground beef, pureed tomatoes, red wine, and then salt and pepper at the end. The most incredible cooking tip I may have ever received came from Chef Simone: in order to continue simmering any type of food without destroying the moisture in the food or adding a different taste, add water. Keep adding water a little bit at a time until you’re ready to take it off the stove. Genius!

Next was making the pasta from scratch. I have attempted this in the past to dismal results for a variety of reasons: 1) I definitely wasn’t using the right flour (semolina my friends, semolina); 2) I have a manual pasta maker, which you technically need three hands for (one to feed the pasta into the machine, one to catch the pasta as it goes through the machine, and one to crank the machine!); and 3) I’m an extremely visual and kinesthetic learner. I need to see someone doing something (usually only once) and I can do it immediately; however, for things that require a certain consistency to work, I need to be able to touch it to learn how it should be done. This was one of the most valuable lessons of the day. Once we made the dough, we set it aside for about 20 minutes with a damp towel over it to keep the dough from creating a crust.

We let the sauce simmer for a least another hour before we even thought to cook the pasta (which took like 3 minutes since fresh cooks faster than dried). We started on the secondi (second course), wild boar sausage with cannellini beans (salsiccia e fagioli). I for one love cannellini beans because of their creaminess, but I’ve never attempted to make beans from their dried versions. Good thing we didn’t have to this day either! In fact, we used leftover cannellini beans from a previous recipe! Chef Simone explained that many Tuscan recipes try to use and reuse leftovers in as many ways as possible to save money. This was actually the third version of cannellini beans used in this particular recipe, and it did not disappoint!

*At this point in the cooking, I think our lack of sugar intake led to an inability to really retain the information. Thank god he gave us a laminated copy of the recipes!

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We left that to simmer, and we cut the pasta and laid it to dry a little. We also made parmigiano reggiano bowls for the pasta! I could’ve stood there and eaten all of the bowls myself, but I decided to exercise some self-control and wait for the actual meal. We heated up grated parmesan in a sauce pan, and waited for the edges to turn a golden brown. Once that happened, we took it off the stove and, with the help of a long skewer, pulled the cheese off the pan onto an overturned bowl. A few seconds later, it hardened, and voila, you have an edible bowl!

Finally, we prepared the appetizer, porcini crostini with shaved truffles. Truffles are also super common in Tuscany, and when heated (by shaving it onto warm food), the aroma they release….JEEZY CREEZY, THE STUFF OF GODS I TELL YOU. This was also a super easy recipe: just grill the porcini, add a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and chopped rosemary and garlic to both sides and grill, grill the bread, assemble, and voila, deliciousness!

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And now, our favorite part…THE EATING AND DRINKING! We sat down in the restaurant and began to eat the fruit of our labor. Everything was incredible. My mouth is still watering thinking about it. We also enjoyed the paired wine with each course, and let me tell you a secret: it’s always never a good idea to stuff your face with food and wine after not eating anything for close to 5 hours. I got greedy and paid the price.

Yes, we polished off all of those bottles. Yes, we ate all that food. And yes, I promptly threw up everything we ate because I was a pig, drunk, and unable to monitor my body’s internal full-meter.

It didn’t ruin the time we had, so no pity. We booked a 3-hour cooking class that turned into 7 hours because of our lively conversations with Chef Simone and Alessia. The stories he had about living in Tuscany, running his own restaurant (in the middle of nowhere), and becoming successful at his trade…these moments, my friends, are what traveling is all about.

[Side note: for those of you who continue to think that America is becoming socialist, or Obama is socialist, or whatever, keep this in mind: Simone told us they weren’t allowed to turn the heat on (neither at home nor the restaurant) until November 1 because it was ILLEGAL to do so otherwise. Our villa was only tile, so we froze our asses off every night when the temperature dipped to 40 degrees. Yeah, we don’t live like that in the States, so shut it.]

These people were the salt of the earth. Hard-working, fun-loving, decent people with a successful restaurant, doing what they love. It was an honor to learn from him, and a joy to hang out with him and his wife for an afternoon. We probably could’ve hung out with them all week; in fact, we went back that night for dinner (because let’s face it, I had no food in my system), and it was again, incredible.

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unreal…ravioli with melted pecorino cheese and pears

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The dream for Timmy for the week: bistec a la fiorentina, served on a hot stone

Thank you to the Muriccis for not only showing us a good time, teaching us how to cook, and making us feel welcome, but for also giving Timmy the recommendation for our next adventure. It was a doozy.

♥, VB

Italy Day 5: Pisa

This is a short post because we had a short day. We woke up late (again) and made our way to our scheduled city late (again). This day we had planned on Pisa and Lucca, but decided just to hit the major tourist site because we were beginning to reach our limit of touring and walking. We set out on the 2 hour drive to the home of the famous Leaning Tower.

Pisa was, well, small. Pretty, yes. Chock full of things to do? Not so much. The main field known as Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) was pretty much the only thing there (I know that’s probably a gross generalization but it’s my blog, so yeah). It was pretty, absolutely, but that was about all there was in Pisa. It’s also a college town, with again, a lot of English speakers, so the novelty of learning about true Italian culture didn’t really shine through.

We spent a short afternoon there, taking pictures and doing our own spin of trying to hold up the tower, and then headed home. I know we’re glad we went so we could check it off the life bucket list, but return to Pisa? Probably not. Hindsight, but we definitely should’ve made time to go to Lucca while the sun was still out.

We stopped for some food at a highway gas station (Italian gas stations, by the way, are unreal. America should really take note of these places), and I promptly lost my credit card that I just gotten in the mail with the microchip necessary for international purchases. Awesome.

When we got home, we watched Beverly Hills Cop on DVD (in English, although Italian dubbing would have been much more hilarious), and called it a night. We needed to rest up for our last two days, and believe me when I tell you, you’ll want to hear those stories. Stay tuned!

♥, VB