Writing

02.09.2015

I know, I know, I’ve been very quiet. It’s not for lack of inspiration, however. In fact, it seems everyday I discover a new treasure here, whether it’s a word (me copa, which aptly is slang for “adore it,”) a perfectly intact sea turtle’s egg found amid the seaweed on the beach, or the rush of a wave, pushing me toward the shore as I contemplate standing up on a surfboard.

I’ve realized I cannot share any story until I explain a bit about where I’ve been thriving.

Those days around the holidays I lived as if in a dream. From the maid’s room in the rented house, when I fell asleep at night the full moon perched, enormous, in my window frame. Often I thought, how can this be real–this joy, this beauty, this experience I wrought for myself from a casual conversation?

A windstorm near New Year’s gave me a gift: an afternoon, albeit a breezy one, off from La Susana with my new bicycle on which to explore and look for a post-maid’s room home.

I canvased the streets of town, zigzagging to make sure I saw what was on each. I browsed in shops I had no interest in. I paid the cashier at Almacen el Palmar the money I owed her for my coffee and croissant three days before. I decided to hunt for Hugo González, the man who hand knits the sweaters that my American friends had bought in bulk like any self-respecting New Yorkers, and on my way there, passed Alto Ver, a casa near el faro with a one-room tower. I could see into the small single room—see the edge of a bed with a white spread and a small table with afternoon detritus: an ashtray, a book, a teacup. I could see through the tower room, in fact, as it had windows on three sides. I allowed myself to dream: oh, what I wouldn’t do to live in a tiny tower room with views where I could be alone and write and dream. I looped around to the front of the building to see if it might be a posada, but the gate was tall, solid wood and firmly shut against inquisitive wanderers such as me. I took a picture of the house’s name, framed by the old ivy, so that I could try to find out more.

Alto Ver

As I pedaled away, I thought wistfully of life in that tower and the fast-moving clouds mirrored my mood. I found the knitter just where my pals had said, in a makeshift shop by the lighthouse, selling his wares.  Hugo promised he’d knit me the sweater I hoped for  in three weeks and we said our goodbyes. On a whim, I returned to him: “Do you know the house near here with a tower–Alto Ver?” I showed him the photos I’d snapped. “No, no lo conozco,” he told me.

“I’m here for a few months and looking for somewhere small and clean to stay,” I explained. He pointed to the tacky house across the street, in which we could see people moving around through the floor to ceiling triangular windows. “That’s sometimes for rent,” he said. “Es muy rica.”

“Yes, I said, it’s very nice. But I am looking for a place very small just for me. I am a writer and I need a quiet place to lay my head.”
“You need a posadita,” he said.
“Wonderful,” I said, sensing I might have found a lead. “Where might I find one?”
“I have no idea,” he said. “But there’s a posada near the entrance to town. Instead of going left as you come in, go right.”

I thanked him heartily, and as as I biked off my thoughts turned to the film Sex and Lucia, a favorite for its heart-wrenching romance: the mysterious connections between apparently disparate people. In the film, Lucia runs away from a tragedy to recuperate alone on an island and a woman who also is broken takes her in, asking no questions. I thought of how much I wanted to meet that person, the woman who would see just what I needed and somehow manifest it for me. As I left town, I swung off the main drag toward where Hugo had suggested I might find a hotel. Continuing my canvasing, I turned suddenly onto a road I’d not yet followed and pedaled on. To my right, a red cement wall with iron bars above woven with ivy sprung up, and beyond was a rambling deep red structure with white windows, reminding me of a stable back home. Ivy and fruit trees made the entranceway folkloric, and a child’s laughter as she ran gaily through the courtyard, beckoned me magnetically in, as did the sign: Posada Paradiso.

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Inside the bohemian foyer were walls covered in oil paintings and framed drawings. A white bar was to the right and a desk to the left, where a woman sat, writing in the hotel log.

A handsome young man appeared on the other side of the attendant’s nook. “Hello, I can speak English,” he said as he made his way around to me. I explained to him that I was looking for a small place to live, just for one; somewhere quiet and clean, and of course, not too expensive.

“Nice and clean and cheap,” he said. “Of course. You should meet our chef. She always seems to know of a place. Can you wait here?”

I said yes and sunk into the deep white sofa. From there I was able to properly take in the place, the scents and sounds that moved through the modest lobby. There wasn’t music, but there was the sound of quiet conversations coming presumably from the room beyond the entranceway, and the air carried the irresistible odors of spices toasting and garlic. A few minutes later, I watched as Juan stopped a woman wearing an apron who was walking briskly through the dining room, motioning toward me and speaking to her quickly in a hushed voice, and then the woman walked over and embraced me.

“I’m Clo,” she said. “You are looking for a place to stay?”
“Yes, I am looking for somewhere quiet and clean just for me…somewhere simple.”
“May I ask, why are you here in Uruguay?”
“I turned my life upside-down, left New York and am working at La Susana,” I explained, “Making ceviche there for the season. A place came with the job, but it’s buggy, filthy and all the kids who live in it are sleeping together. I am not in that moment in my life. I need a place quiet and clean—perhaps you have a friend who has a small room I could rent?”
“I understand,” she said with a laugh. “I have lived in houses like that. I think I may be able to help you.”

Part of me couldn’t believe her immediate generosity of spirit and part of me wasn’t surprised at all. From the moment I had encountered the tower in town, and had told myself first that I ought not dream of such things and then that I absolutely must dream of such things—that there was no place for negativity in my mind or on this adventure, I felt as though I had been making my way here to this woman, her warm eyes, her joyful smile, her strong chin. From that moment, and perhaps in my thinking of the inn-keeper in Sex and Lucia, I’d actually conjured Clo up!

“But have you even been here before?” Clo asked me, steering me out past the desk and bar, through the dining room with an old upright piano and a print of Warhol’s Mick Jagger, a fireplace, a delapidated Old Master painting of a matador and out onto a porch with tables protected by the thatched roof hanging over it all. The sound of birds chirping was constant as she showed me the interior courtyard between the two rows of rooms, the center of which was a small tiled pool. Breakfasters spoke in whispers, and in the gentle hum of voices that accompanied the parakeets’ chirping, there was nary an American accent, or even an English speaker.

“This place is extraordinary,” I told her. The simple beatnik beauty—the quiet—flabbergasted me.
“Perhaps we can even find space for you here,” Clo said.

Again, a tingle of hope thrust through my body like a chill. “I most certainly cannot afford this,” I told her with a regretful smile.
“Of course not,” she said. “Not on a cook’s salary. But maybe we can find something that works for both of us.”

I told her I dared not hope for that but was eternally grateful for her thinking of any ideas regardless, exchanged emails with her and said my goodbyes. As I biked away, I realized I hadn’t said goodbye or thank you to Juan, but then I thought of how silly that was, as I knew in the same instant that I would surely see the yellow-eyed boy again.

Next morning—our last in the beach house—I heard from Clo. She’d talked it over with her partner and they offered me a single room for a monthly rate which was more than I hoped to spend, but it meant that everyday I would go home from work to paradise: a room of my own in the coziest, prettiest, most positive place I had encountered. Resisting the urge to immediately accept, at the advice of my friends, I asked to come see the room first. I biked over to Posada Paradiso, but was approaching from a different direction than I’d come before. As I drew neared to the posada, I saw a deep red tower that had not been visible on my previous feverish visit, and it dawned on me that in fact this tower was within the walls of Paradiso. Once again, I told myself not to get my hopes up—that I’d most likely be tucked away in a dim room without views, parked my bike and went inside.

Eugenia, the daytime desk clerk greeted me with a toothy smile behind braces, and I explained that Clo had offered me a room and I’d come to see it. “Of course,” she said. “Follow me.” As we left the foyer, she led me up a flight of stairs to the second story of the hotel. As I took the first step, again hope surged through me that she was leading me to the tower, and again I pushed it down, admonishing my childlike desire. I was reminded of the axiom that beggars can’t be choosers. As she stayed her course up the stairs and made a right, past the row of doors toward the exterior steps that must lead up to the tower, I told myself with each step to accept and be glad of whichever sweet room I wound up in, but at the end of the walkway, past the last door as she took the first rickety, ladder-like step up to the tower, my heart swelled with unstoppable jubilation—we were going to the tower! My tower!

There she opened the door to a simple square white room with windows on all four sides: one to watch the sunrise, the other opposite to watch it set over the water. “Me encanta,” I told her, and almost kissed her. As we walked downstairs I was giddy with excitement. How had it happened that my idyllic dream of living in a tower had manifested itself? How could things be so simple, so perfect here, and continually give me just want I wanted and needed and asked for?

We said our goodbyes and just as I was walking out of Paradiso to head to work, Eugenia’s voice rang out behind me: “Ah, wait, you are the girl who wants a room for a month. I’m sorry, but I didn’t realize. That’s actually not your room.

Of course my silly, sentimental little heart sank at these words, but I still knew I’d found my home here, and I tried not to let myself be disappointed. So far everything was moving in the right direction and perhaps things might shift at the hotel and I might spend a night or two at some point in the tower. I returned that night to check in with just the clothes on my back—to whichever room they offered me. Clo greeted me and I told her of my visit and how much I had fallen in love with the tower.

“But it’s yours,” she said. “You can have that room if you want it.”

I was practically speechless and embraced her to try to convey my appreciation. She laughed in response. “You must be hungry. Stay here.”

I did as I was told. I sat there as Clo got me a bowl of rich, tender tagine and minty couscous with raisins and almonds. I took in every detail of the lobby: the 1930s portrait of a woman propped low on the wall; the many framed drawings hung salon-style from floor to ceiling, the piles of books. It was decorated not unlike my studio apartment back home….home! I was home in the second highest point in José Ignacio to it winking lighthouse and I’ve been here ever since.

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Clips

01.13.2015

Last summer I met the inimitable editor/stylist Valentina Llardi Martin and soon thereafter she asked me to help create a food section in her quarterly brainchild, Grey Magazine. I was honored, to say the least. Our first issue together, Grey I.II, has a small food section, but it was a delicious first taste of working with the Grey gals, Valentina, Aimee and Monika. Such trust. Such soaring standards.

So groovy to work with photographer Grant Cornett, whose modern images juxtapose my insistently nostalgic prose. It was also a delight to include recipes from a few of my favorite chefs: Mads Refslund of ACME, Ann Redding and Matt Danzer of Uncle Boons, Zoë Feiggenbaum and my dear mamma, with her rendition of Julia Child’s classic Coquilles Saint Jacques.

In case you don’t live in a metropolis with fancy newsstands in every neighborhood, here is some of the section. It’s printed on gorgeous paper and belongs in your hands, so please get a copy of the real thing if you can.

PRY ME OPEN, PLEASE

GRILLED OYSTERS

MUSSELS YEN TA FO 1 MUSSELS YEN TA FO 2

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SEA URCHIN BUCATINI

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Writing

12.30.2014

My first week on the job was quiet, waiting for the shack to be functional and scooting to the beach in the afternoon lull. At first I stayed alone, letting the beauty of the beach, the water and slanting sunlight wash my mind and body clean. Eventually, I succumbed to their invitations and migrated to the La Susana employees who camped out down the beach from the restaurant in a cluster not unlike the cliques that gathered together to horse around on the circle green at my boarding school. Here, however, the gang smoked cigarettes, drank hot maté and cold forties of beer and told jokes I couldn’t understand, the girls unselfconsciously sunning their thonged derrières. They all lived together in “containers”–shipping containers that had been converted into bunks, worked together and “played” together. I was a curiosity first for my presence, then for my paleness. “Muy blanca, ella es muy, muy blanca,” I heard whispered often. Obvio.

Though slow at first work became utterly manic. The town of Jose Ignacio, which could easily be described as “sleepy” on the Monday before Christmas, was positively brimming by the 27th. The ceviche shack, for all its dreamy, I think I’ll quit my job and get my hands dirty romance, had certain inherent complications, such as (in no particular order), exposure to the wind, making chopping herbs impossible on a breezy day; complete separation from the kitchen, making it extremely difficult to time when to fire orders; one sink, shared with Uri the sushi guy and the bartenders; the aforementioned sink having a drainpipe prone to clogging and spewing water onto the floor, around my feet and occasionally even over my feet. In addition, my limited Spanish did in fact make me flail and I was quite clearly the butt of jokes, which is to say people were laughing at me, not with me (for which I don’t blame them). My hands were not only dirty, they smelled of fish without cessation, and hours each day spent making my Ceviche La Susana mis en place, meant the yellow, red and green bell peppers, together made my nail beds a special shade of shit brown.

In other words, almost all of my dreams were coming true.

Making mis

My most often-used phrase—puedes m’ayudar?—was becoming my calling card, and in my efforts not to miss anything important, my ears perked up at any utterance of the word ceviche, which produced a reaction in me as though someone was calling me by name. Nico, the Uruguayan hipster cashier, often hung out in the shack in the early evening so that he could keep one Ray Ban-ed lens toward the late-setting sun. He’d perch on the bar a few feet behind me whispering ceviche, ceviche, just to see me crane my neck to find out whether there was in fact an order for ceviche or what was going on, like a dog sniffing the wind.

I spent Christmas—the only harbinger of which was a man wearing a speedo, sunglasses and a Santa hat while enjoying his sandy al fresco lunch—making ceviche, cloistered by busy work and sunshine from my family and the cold of the northeast. I dined with Belle and Marcelo, who were practicing parenting on me, and spent my last night at their place before New York pals were arriving and taking over the guest rooms. Marcelo had created a makeshift tree under which were many adoring gifts for Belle and two extremely thoughtful gifts for me: a Turkish towel and maté paraphernalia including gourd, pipe and yerba.

Christmas Sunset

On December 26th I moved into the casa in which sundry employees were living. Two guys and two girls inhabited the two upstairs bedrooms, respectively. I was to share the living room, which had two single beds in it, with a chica called Victoria. Due to a deluge the ceviche shack closed early and I wore my navy plastic poncho home as I walked to the house in the rain through La Juanita.

I arrived just as Nico and Veronica, two of my new roommates, were leaving to go to a party in La Paloma for the night. “It’s going to be very complicated. Lots of my friends will be there,” Nico explained mysteriously. “Want to come?” I declined his offer in favor of a few hours to myself to write and get settled, and while I relished quiet, contemplative time outside of my ceviche shack during daylight, whilst sitting on my bed looking out the window at the setting sun below the clouds, the grim reality of the house was undeniable. The kitchen was a maelstrom of fruitcake crumbs, half-drunk wine glasses and gourds with caked maté. The floor was grotty and the bathroom particularly fetid, with stalagmites of toothpaste growing from the shelf beneath the mirror. I miraculously found the Uruguayan equivalent of Lysol on a shelf in my bedroom/living room and sprayed the cushioned toilet seat before sitting on it.

In characteristic form, I forced myself to take the plunge and dove right into the filth by taking a shower. A drain full of hair, a windowsill with dirt ringed soap slivers and a floor like a petri dish, made me feel as though I was getting dirtier as opposed to cleaner under the feeble stream. After my shower, as I looked through my bag for something to put on, I couldn’t bring myself to unpack. It seemed my clothes would need to be washed if they so much as touched the living room shelves. I congratulated myself for stuffing sachets of Santa Maria Novella potpourri in my suitcase, as it brought sweet-smelling cleanliness and glamour to me on my thin foam mattress atop a flimsy wooden bed frame.

In fairness I had been warned: that night as I “slept,” hundreds of mosquitos dive-bombed me. I pulled the poly-cotton sheet over my head thinking it might protect me, but they knew I was there cowering, and buzzed near my ears to wake and lure me out. I warred with the bloodsuckers all night and when I rose in pinkish dawn light, it was to find the wall beside my bed a canvas of bloody splats where I had murdered the Draculean insects in my frantic half-sleep. I over-dozed in the bug-less respite of morning, and when I woke it was to the unmistakable squeaks and sighs, umphs and groans of morning sex coming from the room above. The bar manager and his girlfriend, the hostess, were enjoying the delights of youthful summer love. I didn’t begrudge these two their aurora fucking, but I knew I couldn’t remain in this house for another night and started to gather my things, hoping to sneak out before the couple finished their dayspring fornication.

Leaving my packed bags at the casa in the hope of some miraculous as yet unknown lifeline, I went to work. That evening, I recounted this to my newly-arrived New York City friends over dinner. They naturally laughed at the hoopla, but were aghast at the description of where I was currently residing. “We’ve got a room for you. It’s small, and on the other side of the kitchen (a.k.a. it’s the maid’s room), but it’s clean and it’s yours.”

I moved blissfully in with them that night after dinner and stayed for a week in the lovely maid’s room of their beachfront rental–the exact room I hoped for on this journey: small, white, one single bed with a window above it that framed the waxing moon and a clean bathroom. Why such simple things are so hard to find I shall never understand, and I plan to someday have a room such as this to give adventure-seeking, solitary artists and lost little lambs with aching hearts shelter from the storm.

P.S. Don’t be misled by my anecdotes of endless chopping and constant moving, I am sublimely happy.

* * *

Ceviche La Susana, recipe by chef Marcelo Betancourt (serves 1)

1 large fillet of local white fish (Brotola), cut into inch cubes
1 large pinch sea salt
1 glug of Tobasco Sauce
5 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed pomelo (grapefruit) juice
1 tablespoon brunoised mango
1 tablespoon sweet corn, blanched on cob, then shorn off
2 tablespoons julienned criollita (red, yellow & green bell peppers and red onions, cut into matchsticks)
1/2 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped

Prepare your mis en place. (Depending on how many servings you’re planning on, this can take a while if your knife skills are underwhelming. If you’re serving 100, I speak from experience when I say you may want to get started. Like now.)

Chill all ingredients.

Add ingredients to a small bowl, stirring to blend ingredients. Let chill for 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a cold clean bowl. Garnish with a mango slice. Eat immediately.

 

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Writing

12.21.2014

It’s been quite a year. When I think of my life last December—the beginning of that month, the end and all that followed, it’s hard even for me to believe where I’ve wound up. I’ll tell you in a moment, I swear.

About a month ago, I did something crazy: I quit my job at a fantastic restaurant and chef-focused PR firm, to go on an adventure and recalibrate my compass. Funnily enough, the itch for change brought me to the most unexpected of places: Uruguay, a country from which I know exactly four people. Sisters Francesca and Isabella—whom I have loved since high school, Marcelo—the man who loves Isabella, and a man whom I once loved are my only connection to the place. For years our pals have been jetting down for winter visits to Belle here and I’ve always wanted to go, but life has never been such that I could just jaunt to South America for a winter hols. This year my life was no more conducive, yet that’s nearly just what I did.

Last summer, when I met Belle’s fiancé Marcelo at a boozy dinner, we got along like butter and jam. He oversees five restaurants in José Ignacio and its environs, and when he told me to get my ass down here, I countered that I would need more than just an invitation—I would need a job…and so he said:

“You’e hired. All I do is battle with finding people to hire for the season. One less person to find.”

“Great,” I said. “Put me to work in the kitchen; let me brood on peeling potatoes and chopping onions.”

He left for Uruguay the next day and I went back to my life: waking up every morning on 17th Street, going to my job, trying to do well at it; getting happier; drinking wine. Changing incrementally and knowing something was building inside me. The seasons began to shift. With the scent of winter I recalled the brutal one that had come before. All New Yorkers will shudder when they think of last winter’s unending cold, but in my case, it was worse than that: my mother was ill; I was heartsick. So when Marcelo emailed in November to confirm that I was showing up on December 15th, I realized that the seed of the idea, which I hadn’t taken all that seriously, could grow into the exact experience I needed. What had been nothing more than a pipedream suddenly appeared as the panacea.

I longed for the meditative lull of repetitive motion, of doing something until it’s done. Starting with a stainless steel bowl of giant carrots and making them all into matchsticks, that sort of thing. Scrubbing radishes under water so cold it almost burns your hands. Rolling dough: pushing and pulling and kneading separate elements together. That’s what I wanted. Promoting food and chefs in any capacity is a dream job, but I’ve so missed getting my hands dirty and the quick satisfaction of making something that is eventually, if not immediately, delicious. And writing, I missed that most. So I said yes—yes to whatever it was this job would entail, knowing that an adventure with sea, sand and sun would accompany it.

A few days later Marcelo and I spoke to go over logistics and expectations. “Well,” he told me. “I’ve come up with a slightly different plan for you.”

“Tell me,” I said.

“There’s this shack out past the main dining room at La Susana, closer to the ocean. Last year it was a bar and this year, I want it to be a raw bar. So you’re going to be the ceviche girl.”

“Oh,” I said.

“We couldn’t have you come all this way, to what is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and keep you in the kitchen peeling potatoes. This way you are out in nature, talking to people, making something immediately delicious.”

He’d more or less read my mind in terms of what I was craving. I’d never actually made ceviche, the stuff New Yorkers eat at cocktail parties out of martini glasses? I don’t really speak Spanish, so I had to picture myself out at this bar past the main dining room at La Susana, the restaurant he’d opened last year, with the ocean lapping or banging over my shoulder, me miming and flailing, looking stupid, sounding worse and no doubt burnt to a crisp with my hands deep in raw fish.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m in.”

You see, I needed nature. I’ve been on an upswing for a while now, but I needed to be in nature to fully restore my faith in the world and I needed to go as far out of my comfort zone as possible to fully restore my faith in myself.

Isabella has a southern hemisphere outpost of The Shack Yoga down here in José Ignacio, so there’s that too. After not exercising for the last 6 months, I can realign and do yoga everyday here with Belle as my instructor.

As soon as I committed, the universe provided everything I needed to make it work (there it is, that faith thing—regenerating like the lost arm of a starfish). And so I quit my job, bought a plane ticket and here I am: Ceviche Girl at La Susana. The adventure starts here.

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