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Day One of the Food Stamp Challenge: NYC on less than $3 a day

October 7th, 2012


I wake up at 8:00 a.m. with a headache. Augh, I didn’t plan on this, but then again who ever schedules headaches? I’m not sure if it is a result of a lack of caffeine or, the more likely culprit, half a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that I decided to polish off the night before. It’s not that I’m a big drinker at home, but the idea that I wouldn’t have a wine budget for the coming week sent me into a minor panic. I feared that I’d have the same sake like withdrawals Tom Cruise did in The Last Samurai Sake Detox scene(incidentally, probably the last movie I ever liked him in). I curse myself for my own stupidity! This means I am going to have to tap into my coffee supply. I start to freak out as I’m not yet sure how much this will add to my budget. Yes, I purposefully left myself a little wiggle room in the neighborhood of $9.75 for unanticipated expenses, but this wasn’t how I was planning on spending it! I was planning on getting my caffeine fix at the office where Lipton tea and swill that passes itself off as coffee flow free likely the River Jordan into the Promise Land. Even though my body is aching for it, I decide to run some numbers before breaking into my stash. Within the last few weeks I purchased a 12 ounce bag of Apple Cider flavored coffee for $4.99 from TJ Maxx. A few different google results indicated that an 11 ounce bag of coffee yields 90, 6 ounce servings, less than 6 cents a cup. Ok, I’m in the clear. After wiping the beads of stress induced sweat from my brow, it occurs to me what suckers the coffee conglomerates have made of us all! It’s as if the coffee demi-gods known as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have all been part of a price fixing coffee conspiracy. I have the sense that even the street cart coffee guys who serves coffee in “we are happy to serve you cups,” the icons of New York coffee carts, have been mocking us all along! The secret is out, coffee is cheap. Help me proselytize to the non-believers! Coffee can be yours for mere pennies a day! If only Marie Antoinette had decreed “let them drink coffee,” her fate may have been different.

The percolating begins and the heavenly scent of coffee fills the kitchen. I check on the red beans I’ve had simmering overnight in the slow cooker. Although I can make mean frijoles colorades, all of my recipes are pork based. Since I don’t have the budget for meat, I decided to see what else is out there. I used the Bible of all research resources, Google. However, if I didn’t have internet access at home then I would have walked to my local library 3 blocks away to use Google or to look at recipe books. I found this recipe for Cuban red beans and rice. After seeing mostly positive reviews, I got to work on it the night before. To save on costs, I omitted the pepper and garlic. I made up for the lack of ingredients by adding in more spices that I already had e.g., achiote powder, jalapeño powder, and garlic powder. They taste delicious, but they need a few hours more in the cooker. The olive oil called for in this recipe has compensated for the lack of a meat based product for flavor.

It’s time to turn my attention to making breakfast. Breakie consists of a broccoli egg white omelet (two eggs used) and two pieces of toast. With a little hot sauce, it’s pretty tasty. I wash it down with two cups of coffee. This is more or less my usual breakfast of champions, the only difference is I’m not using prepackaged egg whites and the whole wheat bread has less nutritional content than what I normally eat. I estimate that my breakfast has cost 82 cents.

I had planned on going to two exercises classes this morning, but my head hurts too much and the temperature has dropped significantly. It feels like winter and I feel like being a bit lazy. I’ll go to a 5:30 class. It isn’t Zumba, but it is a Caribbean dance class I’ve been wanting to try. I don’t know it at the time, but I’ll regret my decision as I later learn that the dance class is far too easy. It’s a mistake I won’t make again!

I settle in to read Malaria Dreams by Stuart Stevens. I love this book! It makes me feel like I’m in Africa. He’s mastered the writing art of “show, don’t tell.” All my favorite travel writers have. I want an adventure like this one day! I read for a few hours and then I turn my attention to my own writing.

I start to get hungry around 12:15, but I decide to hold out until 1:00 and continue to write. I break for lunch. The red beans are finally finished. I start on the black beans and boil the rice. I used mostly the same recipe for the black beans as I did for the red beans. I still didn’t use the green pepper or garlic, but this time I added the canned green chilis and another can of tomatoes that I already had in my cabinet. This pushes my budget to $23.00. Only $7 left for the week, but I’m not overly nervous about this.

Lunch is a toasted egg salad sandwich. I’ve used the yoke as well. Two yokes a day aren’t going to kill me, I hypothesize. I add some baby carrots to the mix. I debate on including my banana allowance now. Ultimately, I decided to save it for a pre-gym snack. I find that I’m taking more time to enjoy my sandwich and carrots and that I’m eating at the pace my mother raised me to eat rather than some uncouth speed demon. This is the best egg salad sandwich I’ve had in years! Lunch has cost 87 cents.

90 minutes later I end up eating the banana, simultaneously kissing another 19 cents goodbye. So much for the pre-gym snack. So far, I don’t feel as though I’m deprived of anything and the headache has gone away. I’m now at a whopping $1.88.

On my way to the gym, I realize I’ve left my water bottle at home. Grr. I’ll just have to make due with the water fountain because there is no way I’m buying a bottle of water. No way!

The dinner bell rings around 7 p.m. and I serve up 3/4 of a cup of rice and 1/2 a cup of beans. I’m not sure if I should have the proportions the other way around, but this looks better to me. I’m starting to feel like I’m on weight watchers with all of this food tracking! I do some quick math and estimate that my dinner has cost 50 cents! I stare dumbfoundedly at the calculator. Surely I’ve done something wrong! I triple check my math. No, it’s correct, assuming I can get the six servings out of each that I anticipate.

This means that I’ve eaten $2.38 cents in food today. It has required a lot of advanced planning and I haven’t had anything to drink other than coffee or ice water, but I’m well underneath my budget of $4.28 cents a day! Although I’m craving something a little sweet, I’m not hungry. All in all, a successful day!

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Eating on the Cheap in Manhattan

October 7th, 2012

When a friend of mine who is based in D.C. posted on Facebook that she would be participating in a Food Stamp Challenge, I knew I had to join in. We’re both active in social justice, she more so than I am, but I figured this walk-a-mile in someone else’s shoes would give me a new understanding of poverty. In short, the Food Stamp Challenge gives participants a view of what life can be like for millions of low-income Americans. Participants must use the average Food Stamp Program benefit, a mere $30 per person, as their weekly food budget. That’s less than $5 a day, which sounds like a statistic thrown around for a Third World nation, not the United States of America! I did some research to see if the amount of the benefit one receives depends on the geographic location of the recipient and thankfully it does. One of my great annoyances with the Federal Government is how it seems to ignore the local cost of living when devising taxation plans, e.g., I once read an article that said an annual income of $60,000 in Houston is the equivalent of $125,000 in New York City. Essentially, a New Yorker must make twice as much as someone in Houston does to enjoy the same relative standard of living. So, I was happy to see that price differentials were somewhat accounted for at the lower end of the spectrum. Although single New Yorkers may be alloted a greater weekly benefit of $50 a week, I decided to stick to the original budget of $30. My rationale was that a single person whose annual income might slightly exceeded the $14,160 Food Stamp eligibility (that breaks down to $1,180 a month or $272 a week) likely would still struggle to put food on the table.

Interestingly, the reactions I have received from people have varied based on geography and, at times, ethnicity. Those based in the suburbs and who are often feeding large families, put my budget to shame, while most people living in urban centers thought I was insane and that it couldn’t be done. My own mother’s reaction to my experiment was a chuckle followed by “this should be interesting.” However, having been raised by two parents who survived the great depression, my mom offered some great money saving tips like egg salad sandwiches for lunch. This is also more or less her budget, but then again my mom has access to cheap food from places like Walmart and she eats like a bird. My mom’s staples include canned vegetables, canned tuna/salmon, apples, root vegetables and soup beans which she flavors with bacon grease that she has saved from cooking bacon. Having learned this trick from her, I do as well.

Some of my Latin friends based in New York City were less than impressed with the goal, claiming that their budget was $30 a week in food, but after drilling down on their math, it was really more like $40. Regardless, it was still less than what I was spending a week per food. I also picked up a few interesting ideas for breakfast which included eggs and boiled plantains and eggs and rice. Of course, even though it tastes the same, it sounds sexier in Spanish: huevos con maduros and arroz con huevos.

Compared to many of my friends here, I consider myself a frugal shopper. I rarely ever indulge in take-out, I usually have coffee at home, I’m not hung up on name brands, and I pack my lunch for work. I usually only buy things on sale and stock up on staples like a hoarder, that is, as much as my limited storage space in Manhattan allows. I also make two big meals through out the week in a slow cooker (my favorite and most useful kitchen item) or my Dutch oven. I’m a huge fan of homemade soup and stews. Eating this way saves time and money and I know what I’m putting in my body. However, my downfall is organic meats. After watching the documentary Food, Inc., I refuse to eat any meat that isn’t locally sourced and certified organic. I also buy organic milk. I am less picky about the veggies, but I still try to buy organic veggies when possible and I stay away from anything that I think could have been genetically modified (I’m talking to you corn). Although I knew that at $6 a gallon, I’d be saying goodbye to organic milk and likely meat of any type, my goal was to maintain a healthy standard of living for the coming week.

I knew that I’d have to stock up on some staples, eggs, bread, rice, legumes. I also wanted to incorporate fruits and vegetables as well, as I know all too well from my university days that cheap eats often means a heavily starched based diet. I started looking through the sales ads of various local grocery stores to see what I’d be able to whip up this coming week. Similar to my regular shopping, I noted I’d have to shop at more than one store and perhaps at times that were not the most convenient for me. For example, I had to venture out to D’Agostino on Friday night to pick up Whole Wheat bread because it was on sale for $2.00 a loaf for one day only. D’Agostino loves to have one item that is on sale for one day only. I’m sure it is all part of a plan to lure in shoppers with the idea that they’ll buy other items as well. Clearly D’Agostino thinks that shoppers like me are a dying breed. However, I also picked up some Goya brown rice while I was there as I knew I was unlikely to find it cheaper. I kept wandering the aisles looking at prices to see what may or may not be in my budget. I must’ve looked lost as the manager kept asking me if I needed help. I wanted to reply, “not unless you can lower your prices and/or help me learn how to eat on a strict budget.” Instead, I kept my internal monologue to myself and politely declined his assistance.

Next up was Trader Joe’s, a place I love to shop despite the maddening lines. No doubt the lines rival those of New York City nightclubs because it is the mecca of inexpensive food in New York City. I realize that most low income neighborhoods do not have access to Trader Joe’s so this might be viewed as “cheating.” I justified this though based on the fact that a neighborhood like East Harlem has a Target and now an Aldi so residents there have access to cheaper food than I do so Trader Joe’s would be where I would have to do the most damage. So far, at $21.24, I think I’ve selected a decent variety of food including:

-Two types of legumes (red and black beans), brown rice, an onion, and canned tomatoes to use for my rice and beans dinner dishes.

-Two bags of frozen veggies to be used as side dishes for dinner and for omelets.

-Oatmeal and 5 bananas. I’ll use the bananas in oatmeal and on non-oatmeal days I’ll use them as my “snack food.”

-Whole wheat bread and two dozen eggs (one dozen to hard boil and the other to make egg white omelets). I’ll use these for breakfast and lunch dishes.

-A bag of baby carrots to go along with my egg salad sandwiches.

-A quart of non-organic milk. I consider this my “luxury item.”

I have a few assumptions going into this. I will likely socialize a lot less. I’ve already had to reschedule two luncheons that would completely blow my budget otherwise. My social life here consists of a handful of luncheons/dinners out a month and many more meetings involving a few drinks per meeting. Obviously, there are ways to socialize sans food and booze, and I frequently hit free events (talks/lectures/museums, etc.), but I tend to go solo to those events. I doubt I will have any alcoholic drinks this week unless I break down and use some of my budget for a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, which in New York is actually three dollars. However, a glass of wine with dinner seems less important now and a frivolous luxury. I will also likely give up snacking, which isn’t a bad thing. Deserts are also out the window, unless I do as my fellow challenger does, and freeze bananas to make banana “ice cream.”

What I’ve learned so far from my shopping expeditions is how quickly certain things become major luxuries e.g., meats, milk, in fact, anything to drink that isn’t tap water, fresh vegetables, and most fresh fruits. Also, I feel like my diet in the coming week will lack variety. I’m sure there are people who have mastered making diverse meals on a budget, but I am not one of them yet. I have a lot to learn and I’m looking forward to the challenge!

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Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus!

December 24th, 2011

Although one of the most celebrated Holidays the world over, Christmas traditions vary from country to country. Many secular customs associated with Christmas are an amalgamation of traditions from around the world. Candy Canes and Christmas trees were imported from Germany while the tradition of puckering up underneath the mistletoe and throwing a Yule log on the fire is Scandinavian in origin. The English sent the world Christmas cards, which American born Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer helped to transport them. One of the most famous faces of Christmas is Santa Claus, whom the New York Historical Society once declared to be the patron saint of our own New Amsterdam. These days it would take a Miracle on 34th Street for Santa to leave the North Pole and take up residence in New York.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he lives in the North Pole, but where exactly does he live? Many countries claim Santa as one of their own and nowhere is the dispute over where Santa hangs his stocking more apparent than among the Nordic nations with each country staking some special relationship with him. Over time, Nordic Santas have undergone a metamorphosis from guardians of agriculture to the benevolent little gift givers they are today. Due to their shared agricultural past and common beliefs in Norse mythology, what would morph into modern day Santa was once a gang of mythical gnome like figures who were thought to safeguard farms. Like some sort of elfin mafia, they demanded an annual payment for their protection in the form of a bowl of porridge left out on Christmas Eve. A missed payment might prompt an elfin relation resulting in havoc/shenanigans on the farm or even the revocation of protection for the upcoming year.

Although the first rendering of jolly old St. Nick was created during the 1930s for a coco-cola advertisement by Haddon Sundblom, a Swedish American Artist, Nordic nationals were slow to adopt this Americanized version of Santa. However, the American Santa has begun to appear on the Nordic Christmas circuit as of late and although similar in dress, he is trimmer than his more indulgent American cousin. Additionally, the Nordic Santa avoids a rap sheet of breaking and entering via chimneys, opting for a more direct route through the front door. He arrives via a sleigh, which at various times, has been powered by reindeers, huskies, and even a Yule Goat.

Finns are fanatical about Santa. They believe that Santa or as he’s known locally by his Finnish stage name, Joulupukki, lives with the Mrs. and his helpers, the joulutonttu, in the village of Rovaniemi in Northern Finland. The town of Rovaniemi has received a trademark from the European Union, United States, and Japan designating it as “The Official Hometown of Santa Cause®. His year round residence is conveniently located just a few miles from the airport where tourists from all over the world come to visit Joulupukki at his Arctic Circle headquarters.

Although Joulupukki makes his deliveries via a sleigh drawn by reindeer, his reindeer do not possess the gift of flight. This allows Joulupukki and his entourage to maintain the Christmas spirit by skipping the maddening TSA lines to make it home in time for après-Christmas R&R at a sauna, a popular local Christmas activity.

Danes concede that Julemanden, or as he’s known by his Danish alias, does not live in Denmark proper. He does, however, maintain a pied-à-terre in the Pixie Forest, which he uses when he attends the World Santa Claus Congress, an international conference of professional Santas. The Congress is the United Nations of the Christmas world as it is where official Christmas business, such as declaring Greenland to be Santa’s official residence, is conducted. The event is by invitation only and all members must pass muster on the naught and nice list to gain admission. The Finnish Santa knows this all too well as he once was placed on the naughty list after he declared he would only attend if the Congress acknowledged that he was the one true Santa.

The Swedes claim that Jultomte, Santa’s Swedish nom de plume, lives in Mora, a small town in Northern Sweden where Tomteland, a modest sized Santa theme park is located. Compared to their neighbors, Swedes are the least obsessed with whether Jultomte glides through customs and immigration with the use of a Swedish passport. The Swedes may be less besotted about Santa’s domicile since he shares the spotlight with Donald Duck when Walk Disney’s special “from All of Us to All of You” is televised. This Christmas Eve broadcast brings the country to a standstill as families gather around the television to watch this classic.

As Finland embarks on its quest for world domination, Danes and Greenlanders concur that Julemanden lives in a secret castle on top of a mountain in Greenland where he and his elves make presents with his magic toy machine while debating whether to wish recipients Merry Christmas in Danish, Glædelig Jul, or Juullimi Ukiortaassamilu Pilluarit in Greenlandic. Instead of employing a team of reindeer like his doppelgangers do, he relies upon 12 Greenlandic huskies, each one named after a different month of the year, to pull his sleigh.

Greenland processes approximately 50,000 letters to Santa a year. All letters are delivered to Santa’s giant, red mailbox, which has the distinction of being the world’s largest mailbox. However, even Santa isn’t recession proof in these parts. Like a scene out of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, he recently faced the prospect of being unable to keep up with his Christmas correspondence, as he could not afford the return postage. Luckily, Christmas was saved when a few of his helpers spotted Santa the postage.

Santa Claus, also known as Julenissen in Norway, took up residency in Drøbak, Norway’s Christmas capitol, located 20 miles South of Oslo. His house, known as the Christmas House, is located in the town square, and is open to visitors. Norwegians believe that Julenissen and the Nissen work in tandem to deliver gifts. After Christmas, Julenissen sleeps for weeks to regain his strength. In between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, when Santa is in deep hibernation mode, children dress incognito as little nissers and go door to door in their neighborhood and sing Christmas carols to receive treats, much the same way American children go trick or treating on Halloween.

Iceland dominates the Santa contest, if for no other reason than because of their sheer numbers. Icelanders lay claim to thirteen Santa Clauses, or Jólasveinar, each of whom is named after their favorite activity or food with such names as Ladle Licker, Door Slammer, and Candle Beggar. The Jólasveinar are believed to be the sons of two trolls, Grýla and Leppaludi, both of whom have been part of Icelandic lore since the 13th century, even making an appearance in the Icelandic sagas. The Jólasveinar were once seen as frightening creatures and were used to elicit good behavior from children by garnering a reputation for eating naughty children. This gnomatic clan instilled such fear in the local populace that in 1746, the King of Denmark, then ruler of Iceland, banned his subjects from recounting their tales.

Over the years, the Jólasveinar have transformed from a nightmarish cartel of trolls into more charitable creatures. Today they arrive one by one each day starting the morning of December 12 until Christmas Day. The Jólasveinar will leave small gifts in the shoes of well-behaved children who place their shoes in their windowsills, while the naughty ones receive a potato.

Although countries that hug the Arctic Circle may have the most meritorious claims to Santa, his lineage is unimportant as he transcends nationalities and borders. What is important is the spirit of generosity and hope in those who dare to still believe.

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Cuba Libre

March 3rd, 2011

Waves Crashing along the Malecón at Sunset.


Telling someone I visited Cuba often provokes a surprised reaction akin to saying I vacationed at an all-inclusive resort on the moon. Inevitably, a series of rapid-fire questions ensue about this island cloaked in mystery.

At first glance Cuba seems like the aging starlet in Sunset Boulevard who proclaims to visitors, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Although the spotlight has faded, Cuba’s energetic spirit and timeless beauty still beguiles visitors. It’s easy to imagine what Cuba was like in her glitzy heyday, when Havana was the Paris of the Caribbean and the jet setting Hollywood elite, mobsters, and would be presidents frolicked on white sandy beaches and enjoyed Vegas style shows at the Tropicana.

Today, Cuba is a country full of contradictions. It is a country where the world’s most coveted cigars, too expensive for domestic consumption, are stockpiled; where the Bay of Pigs is now a beach resort; and where Dezi Arnaz, is unknown inside his native land. Mostly though, it is a place where in spite of life’s daily struggles, its gregarious and loquacious residents maintain a jovial, fun-loving approach towards life. After all this is a place where the local philosophy can be summarized by the popular toast, “salud y dinero, que belleza sobra” (“to health and money, we already have enough beauty”).

Offering a high concentration of unique museums, art galleries, picturesque colonial Spanish squares, and a vibrant nightlife makes Havana’s charms impossible to resist. The famous Malecón, a 4 km long seawall that snakes along an ocean front boulevard, is the hub of social activity. This is where children play chicken with the waves threatening to cascade over the wall and friends meet to drink rum and watch the sunset. At night the Malecón frequently turns into a makeshift stage as musicians congregate and impromptu salsa dancing breaks out.

The horse drawn wagon taxis trotting along side vintage pre-revolutionary American cars evoke feelings of nostalgia. It seems as if there’s always a “yank tank” turning the corner announcing its arrival with a roar to remind all that Cuba is the only place on earth where time travel is possible. That so many of these mobile museums are still running, without the assistance of proper spare parts, is a testament to the creative spirit and ingenuity of Cubans as replacement parts are cobbled together from Soviet era cars or are fashioned out of ordinary household items.

The absence of drugs and weapons combined with harsh penalties for theft translate into an almost non-existent crime rate. With a remarkably subtle police presence and seemingly relaxed access to the Internet, it’s easy to think that basic freedoms exist. However, the government controls nearly every aspect of life requiring permission before a citizen can purchase a car, sell a home, or even relocate!

With the collapse of the Soviet empire, small cracks in Cuba’s brand of socialism have begun to appear. Since the 1990s, Cuba has been slowly experimenting with private enterprise by allowing Cubans to operate private restaurants out of their homes, known as paladars. Casa particulares, the Cuban equivalent of a B&B, also have emerged permitting owners to rent up to two rooms in their house to tourists. In a country where the government has a history of limiting interaction between Cubans and tourists, a Casa stay provides an opportunity for a more meaningful interaction with locals while also supporting a family instead of a state owned hotel.

Despite the emergence of small private market, there is no need for Don Draper and his fellow Mad Men of the 60s as no visible commercial activity exists. Instead slogans proclaiming revolutionary virtues such as “Patria or muerte,” “Hasta La Victoria Siempre,” “Tu ejemplo vive, tus ideas perdan,” and “Fidel, estamos contigo,” are plastered on highway billboards and town walls.

Life in Cuba is about simple pleasures that center largely on music, dance, and drink. Music is the lifeblood of Cuba. The melodious sounds of the native bolero, rumba, son, and salsa, spill out onto the cobblestone streets as musicians wearing guayaberas and straw hats reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club play for tips. Cuba’s lively music scene compliments the rum cocktail culture. It is here that the Cuba Libre, Daiquirí, and Mojito were born. No one is more associated with Cuba’s cocktail culture than Papa Hemingway who once called Cuba home. Some of his favored haunts, still in operation today, include La Bodeguita del Medio, the birthplace of the mojito, and El Floridita where it is rumored that he once consumed 16 daiquirís in one sitting, no doubt lifting his glass in true Cuban spirit offering wishes of “salud y dinero.”

For those who want to experience a taste of Cuba in New York, the ¡Si Cuba! arts and cultural festival will be going on in New York from March 31-June 16th. For more information visit http://sicuba.org/en

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Hips Don’t Lie

September 11th, 2010

Always one to try something new websites like Groupon, Buywithme and The Dealist are my crack cocaine constantly enticing me with activities that are on my “bucket list.” You see I want to be the person who dances with the stars, who makes the perfect maki roll, and who can discern the subtle tastes of chocolate and hints of blackberry in a wine without faking it. Essentially, I want to be Dos Equis “Most Interesting Woman in the World.”

Lately, due to the evil marketing geniuses behind these sites, I decided to enroll in several types of dance classes because even though I was on a dance team in high school, somewhere along the way I started to dance like a white girl. You know that girl in the bar who only has one or two moves? Well, I’m her, nice to meet you! And for the record normally she only appears on the dance floor after a few cocktails. When I saw a deal for what I call “stripper school,” also known as pole dancing classes, at NY Pole (www.nypole.com), I didn’t hesitate to throw down the plastic.

In referring to his daughter, Chris Rock once said “my only job in life is to keep her off the pole. I mean, they don’t grade fathers but if your daughter’s a stripper, you (bleep) up.” While that may be true, after tonight I have a new found respect for strippers. Those girls have some wicked upper body strength and they definitely have battle scars by the time they “go public!” Speaking for myself I am bruised and battered from the routine and constantly found myself thinking “yeah, that’s gonna leave a mark.” Next time I’m wearing hooker shoes (which appear to be available for purchase at the school). Note to self, buy the hooker shoes.

In the spirit of full disclosure I took one pole class before with friends. Ladies, you have not lived until you and your friends attempt to practice the art of seduction in front of each other. Until you abandon all inhibitions, the Yaya bond isn’t really complete. Acting like an absolute idiot, however, solidifies the bond. It’s the equivalent of becoming blood sisters.

I rolled solo this time around so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The class was filled with normal women looking to “work the pole.” Eavesdropping on the conversation, I learned that most attendees were mothers. There was even one pregnant woman there. At first I thought, oy veh is this what marriage life does to you? Are these women taking the class to add some spice? Or do we have an underground secret culture of wanna be strippers? As it turns out I was a de facto participant in a bachelorette party, a very shy bachelorette party that should’ve had a few pregame tequila shots. The ladies in my class were all scared of the poll, which meant more poll time for me to get jiggy with it. By the end of it I was rocking that pole (or so I thought anyway, which is all that mattered). I was twirling, I was spinning, I was climbing. Generally, I was having my own Flash Dance moment of empowerment. Although I’m not hanging upside down yet, give me a few more lessons and I will be. By the end of class I wanted a stage name and I wanted to tip myself.

The class provided a great workout! I’m adding stripper class to the exercise circuit. The class is so addictive that I nearly signed up for a membership on the spot, which includes a 20% discount for the pole-dancing virgins. I had to remind myself that I have instituted a moratorium on my credit card, which is on the verge of spontaneously combusting any moment, in part due to things like “stripper tuition.” Luckily, I have a few more prepaid classes remaining until I need to reenroll so I can continue to feed my female empowerment buzz for a little while longer while I think of my stage name!

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The Argentine Tango-Too Hot to Handle

May 10th, 2010

Like many a foreigner, I was first seduced by the Argentine Tango while sitting at a café in the colorful working class barrio of La Boca in Buenos Aires. It was here, at a non-descript café on the Calle Caminito, while sipping a glass of Malbec that was as vibrant as La Boca itself that my introduction to the tango began. As I turned to see if I could locate where the mellifluous mélange of live Afro-Cuban and Spanish music was emanating from I spotted a pair of street performers dancing the most sensual dance I had ever seen.

The couple’s movements mesmerized me and for the next few minutes these anonymous dancers were the only two beings that existed for me. I was captivated by the graceful style exhibited by the female dancer. She gave the illusion of floating when she danced as she glided across the floor. Her feet rarely touched the ground when she would perform such moves as the “gancho,” a move in which she would hook her leg around her partner’s leg or a “boleo” where she would perform small quick back kicks as she sashayed from side to side. Her moves were often quick, yet elegant and poised. At other times, she would dance slowly and tantalizingly by performing such moves as sliding her foot down her partner’s body or arching her back as he dipped her.

Watching this couple, it was not hard to imagine a time when the tango was a forbidden dance. Although there is nothing vulgar about it, the Argentine Tango is danced in a close embrace or “abrazo.” It is for this reason when there is chemistry between partners, such as the couple I was watching, that I feel as though I am watching an immensely private moment between two lovers. The couple’s dance conveyed several emotions over the course of a few minutes allowing a voyeuristic glimpse into their relationship. Through their dance steps viewers could catch conflicting moments of flirtation, foreplay, seduction, resistance, passion, rejection and reconciliation. The emotions that we all have in human relationships were summed up in one simple, yet emotionally intricate and complicated dance.

It is said that tango is essentially walking with a partner to music, but such a description misses the essence of tango. To me, the tango is a dance where a couple makes love while fully clothed. It is the most passionate dance I have ever seen performed and it is a dance I knew then I had to learn. It is for this reason that I enrolled in Group Dance classes at “Dance with Me Soho.” I was hoping that I could relive my time in Buenos Aires and learn to dance like the porteña I saw dance so beautifully. Secretly, I was also hoping I would be paired up with an Antonio Banderas type, preferably the Antonio Banderas from “Take the Lead” since that version already knew how to dance the tango, but any iteration of Antonio would do.

When I arrived at the dance studio, I realized that not only would Antonio would not be in attendance, but I would be lucky to dance with a man at all. The ratio of men to women was disappointing as there were eleven women to three men in the class. I tried to overcome this chromosomal imbalance through imagination. When the instructor turned the music on, I transported myself back to Buenos Aires by imagining I was six thousand miles away at a milonga in Palermo Soho, a fashionable neighborhood of Buenos Aires. I imagined Carlos Gardel was signing one of his legendary tango songs, Por Una Cabeza, a song in which he compares his love for gambling on the ponies to his obsession for a particular lady. I pretended that I was the graceful, sensual porteña on Calle Caminito instead of the frustrated woman on Broome Street dancing with an equally frustrated woman where one of us would inevitably stop every so often to ask, “who is leading? Are you leading? Are you pretending to be the boy? Am I the boy? Who is the boy?” The gender confusion was exhausting! After awhile I felt like I was on a bad reality TV show that was experimenting with gender identity.

That night I would learn that at a milonga, a tango dance hall, couples dance counter-clockwise. This was a concept my classmates and I seemed to have had problems grasping as there were several collisions. As someone who would have rallied against banning the tango in its heyday, I would fully support the City of New York outlawing my class ever dancing the tango en masse. What we, as a collective, did to such a graceful dance, should be illegal. While there is a thriving milonga scene in New York City, which I hope to visit one day, I will only do so after I have engaged a private dance instructor to learn the tango. Although I have three more classes left, I have banned myself from taking group tango lessons. For the next three weeks, this gringa can be found dancing salsa in Soho.

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Ahoy-We’re Touring the Hell Out of Prague

November 5th, 2009
View of from the Castle District

View of from the Castle District


I love this town! Prague rivals Paris and Buenos Aires in beauty. Where Krakow was reminiscent of the iron curtain mentality, Prague is western and welcoming. Of course, one of the first things I noticed is how gorgeous and flirty the men are so I admit my perception might be a bit skewed.

There are still some cultural things that we’re trying to get used to, however, since my Czech is limited to “Ahoy” (hello/goodbye), “dyekuyi” (thank you), “prosim” (please), and “pivo” (beer), I’ll over look Rule #3 of the trip, i.e., “just stand there and I’ll move around you.” Speaking of the Czech language, how can you not love a country whose greeting makes you sound like a pirate? Ahoy Prague!

Tram 22. End of the line folks!

Tram 22. End of the line folks!


We headed to the Castle District via tram 22, which has been branded as the tourist tram since most tourist sights are along 22. The Castle District neighborhood is gorgeous! If by some random turn of events I had to move to Prague as part of my expat relocation posh package, I’d negotiate a flat in the Castle District. The Castle was architecturally stunning! I’m not embarrassed to say that we posed with the Castle Guards. Those hombres could take a page from the British Beefeaters as they aren’t even subtle when looking around to see how close the tourists are to them. I could tickle a British guard with a feather and he wouldn’t move, but I had the feeling that if we got too close to the Czech guards, one of them would pounce on us and take us out faster than we could say Ahoy.
St. Vitus Cathedral within the Castle compound.

St. Vitus Cathedral within the Castle compound.


The inside of the Castle was underwhelming as it was sparsely furnished, but the views from the Castle were amazing. We saw more art than we cared to while touring the various galleries before admitting that unless the art is by someone we know, we’re not interested. We ditched our cultural ambitious and headed to the “Golden Lane,” aka Zlata Ulicka, which is Pragues smallest Street.
Golden Lane

Golden Lane


The Golden Lane is a quaint street that looked like it could be on the set of Disney around the corner from Magic Kingdom. On Golden Lane there are several mini one-room cottages that were built in the 16th Century to house the 24 castle marksmen and their families who guarded the fortress. The population of medieval Czech must have been comprised of short people as we had to duck through the doors. Franz Kafka, Prague’s native son, had his workspace at 22 Golden Lane. I had Nam like flashbacks to reading Metamorphosis in AP English. To this day, I still don’t see the big deal about an angst ridden teenager who goes into his room, refuses to come out, and slowly turns into a cockroach.
No. 22, Kafka's former studio.

No. 22, Kafka's former studio.


From there we tried to go the Toy and Barbie Museum, but it was closed due to technical reasons much to our disappointment. We decided lunch was in order and headed to Café Louvre, a Prague institution where Kafka and Einstein used to “kick it,” along with other members of the local intelligentsia. I ordered the most delicious split pea soup I’ve ever had. The manner in which it was served had pizzazz. The chef came out and gave me a bowl filled with what looked like a scoop of mashed potatoes with pieces of ham and croutons. He then proceeded to pour the pea soup around the potatoes and then garnished it with mint. I am not sure how you say delicious in Czech, but I said “OMG” in English. We also had our first serving of mulled hot wine.

The wine warmed us up and it was perfect for a cold day. It was here that we developed rule #4, which is “Don’t order more than one mulled wine unless you plan on getting bombed.” It was a bit cold that day and I could have definitely stayed and gotten bombed if it were not for the fact that we had limited sleep the night before and tickets to the opera.

Warm and toasty in a glass.

Warm and toasty in a glass.


However, the mulled wine made us warm and toasty and temporarily immune from the elements so we headed back to the hotel for a quick wardrobe change and then we were off to Don Giovanni at the Estates Theater, the very theater where Mozart debuted Donny G. We loved rocking it W.A. Mozart/Donny G style in such a visually beautiful place. Cue the Falco Rock Me Amadeus music.
And now for a little culture. Estates Theater.

And now for a little culture. Estates Theater.


We capped off our day of culture with dinner at the Buddha Bar of the NY/Paris chain. The Prague version was a cross between Buddakhan and Tao. The food was comme ci comme ça and overpriced. The beef I had tasted like $3 Chinatown beef and did not merit the $25 price tag. However, the drinks more than made up for the food. If you go there, go there for drinks, skip the dinner. And say “ahoy” to the giant Buddha in the main dining room for me, would you? I don’t think the “ahoy” for “hi” will ever get old to me.
If I could only remember the name of this delicious elixir.

If I could only remember the name of this delicious elixir.

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Prague-Note to self no more night trains!

November 4th, 2009
Our train from Krakow to Praha

Our train from Krakow to Praha

We arrived in Prague at 7 a.m. from Krakow on the night train. The night train was an experience that I will not soon forget. I wanted to take it because I think that there’s something romantic about traveling by train, maybe it is because I am a throw back from another era and I was looking for Cary Grant on the Orient Express. The Orient Express it was not! Although I didn’t think it was that bad, Ahab, the nickname I’ve bestowed upon my travel mate for her map skills, described it as “super creepy.” In fairness she was also afraid we would get gassed and robbed on the overnight train as she had read one too many travel warnings that had morphed into the realms of urban legends. Perhaps, it wasn’t that bad for me because I drugged myself up with a Nyquil and melatonin cocktail so I was too tired to care. However, it didn’t help allay Ahab’s fears when our hot little porter told us to lock our doors because “there are thieves.” So, we triple locked our private sleeper compartment and debated on whether we should even venture out to the WC should the need arise, lest we get clobbered by some thief in the night.

Speaking of our sleeper car, when we first entered the beds were turned down, however, we weren’t ready to retire yet so we had hot porter put the go-go gadget seats up into the “lounge” position, which he happily did and then left.

Our glamorous private sleeper car.

Our glamorous private sleeper car.


About ninety minutes later, the sleepy time drugs were kicking in and we wanted to go to sleep so we tried to convert our seats into beds. However, not possessing Inspector Gadget like skills, we were unsuccessful. We didn’t see the clearly marked signs that alerted passengers that it was verboten to transform the seats into beds and vice versa while the train was in motion until it was too late. Wunderbar! There was an “emergency” bat mobile phone to dial our porter. To me it was the equivalent of the hotline between Kremlin to Washington. To Polrail it was the equivalent of the fake Fisher Price phone that sat on my first grade teacher’s desk which she claimed was her direct line that she would use to narc on us to God in the event we were bad. Needless to say our phone didn’t work and the porter didn’t come running when we called him. It took him 40 minutes to magically appear. I tried to search for him on our car and tried to get into another car to find him, but it was impossible to pass thru the cars as there was no platform floor in between cars. This was both comforting as no one could get into the car who shouldn’t be in it, but also disturbing because we couldn’t get out. Hey, I’ve seen Polar Express. I know that a train can threaten to be derailed when certain cars get separated from other cars.

Perhaps the most fun was when somewhere in the middle of the night and in the middle of who knows where Eastern Europe our train stopped for an hour or so due to an engine problem. We didn’t have heat, electric, or water. It was freezing! Ahab was afraid they would kick us off the train, but I just took more melatonin to go back to sleep. At that point I needed the drugs more than ever because with the lack of the engine to power the heating system and the soothing sounds of the train traveling on the tracks, I had a hard time drowning out the sound of the passenger snoring in the compartment next to us.

I think, I can, I think, I can….choo…choo. Thomas the train finally pulled into the main train station in Praha shortly before 7 a.m. We stepped out of the train station on our very short walk to our hotel and our first smell of Prague consisted of some guy smoking pot. Pot at 7 a.m on a Monday morning? Is that the Czech version of the breakfast of champions?

We only had to go about 600 meters to find our charming hotel, the Hotel Chopin. I highly recommend the Hotel Chopin. The staff was friendly, the rooms were clean with modern décor, and it was centrally located. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again should I one day find myself in Praha!

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Auschwitz where textbooks come to life

October 12th, 2009

Auschwitz, the whole purpose of our trip to Poland. My fellow companion, who I’ve nicknamed Ahab due to her mad navigational skills, kindly arranged a private driver to take us there. Peter, our driver, naturally only spoke to us when spoken to (see rule 2 from the previous post). He picked us up from our medival themed hotel in Old Town on a rainy day for the hour long drive to Auschwitz. I thought the rain fit the occasion.

The museum at Auschwitz is free and it’s easy to explore on your own, but we hired a guide for 33 PLN (about $11). It’s a group tour where everyone gets a headset and the guide has a microphone and we’re able to hear the guide through the headphones. It’s a great way to give a tour, especially in a place as somber as Auschwitz. Our guide was fantastic. We first watched a very moving documentary on Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau. I had to struggle not to cry during the movie as it was a wonderful demonstration of how brutal the Nazis were. Auschwitz is much smaller than Birkenau. Birkenau is roughly 438 acres whereas Auschwitz is much smaller. In fact, Birkenau was built because Auschwitz was too small to acheive the evil goals of the Nazis. Birkenau was the largest of all the Nazi extermination camps.

If I had only two words to sum up the camps it would be savage and inhumane. Although the Nazis destroyed the massive gas chambers and creamatoriums at Birkenau, the remains are still there to see how large they were. We also walked into a gas chamber and creamatorium in Auschwitz. It was unbelievable and overwhelming to think that we were standing on the exact spot where thousands and thousands met their death unexpectedly. I found that part the most difficult to tolerate as well as looking at pictures of children who had been the victim of experiments. I thought Birkenau was more moving than Auschwitz. It’s weird to say that because Auschwitz had several photographs and items from former prisoners there, but it had a museum like quality to it where everything was roped off and partitioned by glass cases, but at Birkenau visitors are able to roam the grounds freely and explore on their own. You walk along the train tracks that we’ve seen so many times in documentaries which were used to transport people to the camp.

It’s hard to talk about what the visit their meant to me. In fact, it was even difficult for Ahab and I to talk about it afterwards. We were silent for a good part of the car ride back to Krakow, each lost in our own thoughts about what we had witnessed. I was left with the feeling that it only takes a generation, a generation of brainwashing to change an entire culture. That’s a scary thought!

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Polish Golden Rule Speak only when spoken to

October 11th, 2009

Krakow, Poland.

I’m convinced the Russians were friendlier right after the fall when I was there than the native Krakowians. Although beautiful architecturally, if Mr. Rogers wanted to be my neighbor, I’d have to tell the old man, nie! In my two days here, I’ve discerned two rules:

1) Golden Rule-speak only if spoken to. People avoid eye contact, smiling and even speaking. We noticed this when we were at the Cloth Hall, a beautiful building built for the cloth trade back in medival times, but now houses tacky tourist souvenirs. Vendors refused to acknowledge our presence. Is it better for a vendor to follow you around and stare at you as if you’re casing the joint or to act like you’re not there? At this point, I’m no longer sure.

2) “I don’t know” roughly translates into “I don’t want to deal with you.”

Aside from the cold fish, cold war mentality, we’ve had a great time. The city, Old Town in particular, is stunning. In our first 24 hours we accidentally got caught up in a pro-atheist rally. I tried to take a picture of a guy with a Yankees umbrella to show that they really are allied with the Enemy and part of the Evil Empire, but some godless heathen blocked my shot.

We saw the Wawel Castle where we tried to hunt for the Wawel dragon (these people are obsessed with the ancient lore of the dragon who allegedly lived in the castle). Shocker the dragon remained elusive. After our failed dragon hunting, we tried to find a pub to have a polish beer and some perogies, but they’ve strategically hidden their pubs down long alleyways and in basements. We settled on a cute pub in the cellar of a medival building and had some Tyskie beers and perogies for lunch. The beer was pretty tasty, but the bartender was not. It took me butchering “thank you” in Polish to get a smile out of him. After refueling we debated on taking a tour of the city in a golf cart (no joke), but we decided to walk off the beer. For dinner we went to Pod Aniotami (“Under the Angels”), according to Lonely Planet the restaurant, “occupies valuted cellars decorated with traditional folksy knicknacks and offers excellent typical Polish food in an attractive atmosphere.” It was a delicious and the restaurant looked very Sud de France and if it wasn’t for the wait staff we would’ve really loved this place, but with house wine at $3 a glass and two giant glass enclosed wood grilled ovens what’s not to love?

We later partook in the local liquor i.e., lots of flavored Wodka. I tried a 70 proof honey vodka. I’m pretty sure I actually drank honey flavored gasoline. Someone could’ve lit my dragon breathing breath on fire.

We tried to cap off the evening at the Irish Embassy, which is billed as one of the best bars in Krakow and the largest Irish Pub in Poland. We’re convinced it was the largest Irish gay bar as we were the only two women in the multi-level establishment. It was either because some important football game was on or because we found the only gay Irish theme bar in all of Poland. Knowing us, I’m banking on the latter. Either way there are a lot of good looking, tall men here, prompting us to wonder, who let the cougars off their leashes? We are cougars, hear us roar.

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