My grandma’s hands


My most distinct and tactile memories of my grandma all involve her hands. She had strong hands that wrung out dishrags and mops until they were completely dry. Her nails were so thick and beautiful they stood up to that same dish and mop water and rarely broke.

Whenever she hugged me or squeezed my hand – even when she was in her early 90s – it felt less like a grandmother and more like Lou Ferrigno.

One of my earliest memories of her and her strong hands happened after she and my grandfather came to live with us in North Carolina from their home in western Pennsylvania. Their arrival was unexpected, to put in kindly. They put their house on the market, sold it quickly and called my mom to say they were moving down. They’d be there just as soon as they packed up the house.

I don’t remember all the details but I do recall that my brother and I had to bunk together so my grandparents could stay in his room. Every night at bedtime, my grandmother would come into our room, talk to us, tell us stories about our mom and scratch our backs with her amazing nails until we drifted off to sleep. It was the closest I ever felt to her.

My grandma died this week, peacefully and in her sleep at the age of 93. She was ready to go, had been for awhile. Dementia had strafed her brain, and her body, which had stayed remarkably strong most of her life, had started to give in to the twin forces of gravity and time.

As a family, we thought about the idea of her dying many times because it seemed so likely. I assumed that when it happened, I would feel relieved and nostalgic. So when I got the phone call this week, standing in a fancy corporate conference room in a city far away from her, I shocked myself by bursting into loud, wracking sobs. And I thought immediately of those nights in my bedroom, falling asleep to the sound of her voice and the gentle pressure of her nails on my back.


My grandma, Mildred Twilight Sedei, was much more than her strong hands to me.

In many ways, she was awe inspiring. Born in 1922, she grew up the oldest of seven kids in an upper middle class family with a father in real estate and a creative, free-spirited mother who was fun and impractical. The Depression ended their prosperity and my grandma was the only sibling who remembered the good times. Instead of growing up privileged, she became a surrogate mother to her siblings and took over the tasks of cooking, cleaning and caring for the kids at a young age. She learned to work hard, save everything and expect little. Right up until her last years, she stuffed restaurant creamer cups and butter packets in her purse, washed Styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery and made her bed with military precision. Nothing was wasted, nothing was half-done.

She married my grandfather young – because he was handsome and she liked blond men. It was a silly reason to pair off, and it was mostly an unhappy marriage. But she found joy in other places. She had six children, five of whom survived, and she raised them all on a bricklayer’s salary. She did everything that wives and mothers did in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s from cooking to cleaning to laundry to shopping but she also designed and sewed the entire family’s clothes down to their underwear, drew beautiful illustrations, colored photographs for professionals, painted vivid canvases and tap danced like Gene Kelly. I remember her drawings being better than any Disney animation, and the clothes she designed were so stylish that my mother was often the best-dressed girl at her high school. She invented colorful, patterned boxer shorts, making them for her three boys before it was fashionable and getting them teased in the school locker room. I remember her tap dancing in our kitchen when she must have been nearing 70 years old.

Her creativity and talent seeped into the next generation. We have graphic artists, advertising creatives, hair stylists, photographers, makeup artists and video game designers who can all trace their talent back to her. My mother used to say that if my grandma had been born in a different time, in different circumstances, she would have been an illustrator or a fashion designer or even Martha Stewart.

She loved musicals and Shirley Temple movies, the color pink, the fabric store, my dad’s Lincoln Continental, anything sweet, going to church with her friends and warm weather.  She couldn’t sit still or be without a project in the hopper.

There were the harder to take bits too. She was maniacal about cleaning, order and organization. She couldn’t sit at the dinner table if there was a dish to be cleared or a smudge to be wiped. You could always see the vacuum lines in her wall-to-wall carpet. She once rewashed an entire dinner’s worth of dishes because her new daughter-in-law dried them with the wrong towel.

She had trouble letting anyone else do anything she knew she could do better. I once had a knitting project for Girl Scouts – a scarf – that I was fumbling through. I came home from school one day to find it done, with tight perfect rows and a fringe on the end.

She didn’t have much of a sense of humor, which was a shame because my grandfather was a riot with lots of hilarious characters and funny stories from his years with rough-and-tumble men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Air Force and in the bricklayer’s union. She’d just tsk him and sigh and say it was “silly stuff.” She missed out on a lot of laughter.

But she was best known for pushing food on people. She was always worried none of us was eating enough and would keep offering, insisting, prodding until we finally ate one of the store brand vanilla sandwich cookies in the jar or another piece of chicken at dinner.

Once my dad, exasperated and worn down by her insistence he eat more, said, “Mid, you’d be great at selling drugs.” Since my grandma had no sense of humor, she replied, “Oh no, I don’t like drugs.”

I want to remember it all, the good and the difficult, because it is who she was and it all taught me something. Kids are sponges and my grandma was constantly around to observe and absorb. She taught me to love Cyd Charisse, Danny Kaye and Shirley Temple and how to pin a pattern onto fabric. She showed me that staying active is important no matter how old you get and that a clean house isn’t as important as enjoying the company of the people in it. And she taught me that it was better to be alone than to marry the wrong person. That last one has been a guidepost in my life for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure I would have recognized that truth so young without watching her marriage.

Christmas last year, I went to visit her in her assisted living home with my three-month-old daughter, Evie. It wasn’t my grandma’s first great-grandchild but it was the first baby she’d seen in years. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Her memory had faded and she didn’t talk or even acknowledge people much anymore. I knew there was a good chance she’d look at my daughter and just not care. But I wanted them to meet.

To my surprise and delight, my grandma sparkled that day. Her eyes lit up when she saw Evie. She wanted to hold her and when she did, all her muscle memory for babies came back. She held her in her strong hands and smiled and commented on how pretty and sweet and chubby she was. It was the most I’d seen of my “real” grandma in years and I was proud that my little girl was the cause. It felt like a small miracle.

It was also the last time I saw my grandma.


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George Clooney isn’t the only reason to visit Lake Como

My in-laws came to visit us in Switzerland this summer from the States, and we wanted them to have a wonderful European experience. We needed a gorgeous place with stunning views, friendly people and delicious food.

Unfortunately Switzerland failed on the last two counts, so we headed south to Lake Como, Italy. You may have heard of it because George Clooney has a house there. But it’s much more than a playground for Hollywood’s eternal bachelor. It has pristine lakes and the Alps of Switzerland as well as warm Italians, manicured gardens and delicious regional dishes like osso bucco, homemade pasta and risotto. And, of course, there is Italian gelato.

It ended up being the perfect destination for our getaway. Here are a few of my favorites.

Where to stay: Bellagio

There are lots of cute little villages on Lake Como and the surrounding lakes, but we chose Bellagio, which sits on a little spit of land that juts out into the lake. It’s hilly and its coast is lined with ornate villas and beautiful gardens. Bellagio is big enough to have delicious restaurants, lots of gorgeous villas to visit and some nice hotels but small enough to wander on foot. And if you’re coming from Switzerland, as we were, it was much closer than the town of Como – just a quick ride across the lake in the car ferry from Menaggio.

View of Lake Como from Bellagio. Those are the Italian Alps in the background.

View of Lake Como from Bellagio. Those are the Italian Alps in the background.


Hotel: Miralago Bed & Breakfast’s Villa Rosa

We stayed at Villa Rosa, one of two apartments on the hill overlooking the Miralago Bed & Breakfast. The two-bedroom villa is completely updated, incredibly comfortable and a short walk from the main part of Bellagio. But the best thing about it was the porch and the amazing view of the lake and the mountains, as well as Villa Serbelloni, a gorgeous villa owned by the Rockefeller Foundation.


Cooking class at Ristorante Il Caminetto

My mother-in-law is a talented cook who loves to learn new tricks, so I knew no trip to Italy would be complete without a cooking class. It doesn’t take a genius to book a class at Ristorante Il Caminetto in Varenna. The TripAdvisor reviews for this restaurant’s cooking classes all raves, and after attending I can see why. Chef Moreno Maglia manages to both make delicious food and provide witty banter throughout the four hour class. The guy deserves his own cooking show on the Food Network. He told us how he started the cooking classes to supplement the restaurant business, even though he barely spoke English when he started. We met his wife, his mother and his granddaughter during the day. It felt like a family affair.

The day started with the best cappuccino we had in Italy and ended with a delicious meal of homemade tortelloni, baked chicken and risotto with lots of wine poured in between. Everyone came away full and happy.

Chef Maglia making tortelloni during our cooking class.

Chef Maglia making tortelloni during our cooking class.

Take a boat tour on Lake Como

One of the best ways to see Lake Como is from the water. Many of the stunning private villas – including George Clooney’s – are only visible from the shoreline and tooling around the sparkling lake on a clear day is fabulous all on its own. While there are plenty of water taxis you can hop from town to town, we decided to hire a boat and tour guide for a couple hours to give us the lay of the land.

Barindelli Taxi Boats picked us up in a beautiful vintage wooden speed boat and took us to see villas built by rich cardinals, featured in James Bond movies and owned by business tycoons. With the sun shining down and the wind in our hair, we felt like movie stars.


The beautiful boat we took out on Lake Como.

The beautiful boat we took out on Lake Como.



Cruising on Lake Como.

Cruising on Lake Como.

Tour Villa del Balbianello

We spotted this stunner on our boat tour and knew we had to come back. Built by a rich cardinal and restored by a wealthy Arctic adventurer in the 20th century, the villa has lovely grounds, exquisite architectural details and secret passage ways. Sign up for the guided tour and leave plenty of time to roam the grounds and snap photos. It’s so beautiful you’ll likely see more than one bride and groom there for wedding pictures.

View of the grounds at Villa del Balbianello.

View of the grounds at Villa del Balbianello.


Buy olive oil at Vanini Osvaldo

We tasted Vanini Osvaldo’s extra virgin olive oil at our cooking class at Il Caminetto, and we were thrilled to find out we could buy it just across the river in the little town of Lenno. It’s a family-run business, and there’s nothing fancy about the shop (10 Via Silvio Pellico, Lenno). It’s just a few shelves of the one kind of olive oil in a few different sizes. They take cash and credit cards, and you’ll be in and out in five minutes with a tin of the good stuff.


Restaurants in Bellagio

Suisse: Oh, the irony. We leave Switzerland because the food isn’t up to snuff and end up eating in a restaurant called Suisse. And it’s amazing, both delicious and theatrical. I had a phenomenal simple pasta with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes that everyone else at the table had to try. My in-laws had a Barolo risotto that they adored. And the tables around us were wowed with lobster stuffed with pasta and fettuccine alfredo served from inside a hollowed out wheel of cheese.

La Pergola: This lakeside gem was just a few steps from our hotel. We popped in for lunch the day we arrived and were pleasantly surprised by the minestrone soup, the lake fish and the homemade pasta.

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Veiny feet and other surprising things that I’m grateful for now that I’m pregnant

Pregnant (and grateful) in Avignon.

Pregnant (and grateful) in Avignon.


Gratitude is trending on Facebook. Several of my friends have posted daily lists of things they’re grateful for and challenged others to do the same. The idea is that focusing on the good things in your life will make you happier as well as more appreciative.

Since I’ve gotten pregnant, I have a whole new list of things to be grateful for, most of which I never gave a second thought before. Here is my pregnancy gratitude list.

I am grateful for:

The days when I can see all the veins and bones in my feet, because it means my feet aren’t swollen into fat, tight piggies.

The nights when I lay down in bed and do not get heartburn.

My baby girl turning somersaults and making my stomach dance. It means she’s in there and she’s doing OK.

My belly button being an innie – even though it’s a very angry-looking, pinched innie that will likely pop any day now.

Anyone who tells me I look good. Most days I look in the mirror and I see a beach ball, so it’s nice to hear otherwise.

A schedule that allows me to take an afternoon nap when I need it. Not every pregnant woman is so lucky.

Having an appetite. I’m glad my whole pregnancy hasn’t been one long bout of nausea. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to sample all that delicious gelato in Italy.

My Swiss OBGYN who speaks fluent English. Yes, having a baby in a foreign country sets the gratitude bar that much lower.

My husband getting excited every time he feels the baby move or sees her on the ultrasound monitor. His excitement is contagious!

My mom friends who tell me it’s OK to feel scared, overwhelmed and uncertain. I thought I was joining a judgmental club – the mommy wars, anyone? – but they’ve proven me wrong.

My mom, mother-in-law and dear friends outfitting me with beautiful maternity clothes. H&M is one of the few stores in Switzerland that sells them for less than the cost of your first born and most of their maternity clothes are cut for teen moms, not 30-year-old moms. Micro maternity shorts, anyone?

Being able to travel during so much of my pregnancy. A lot could have gone wrong and kept me confined to our apartment. Instead, I’ve been lucky enough to visit 10 different countries and have hundreds of wonderful experiences. Some day we’ll tell our daughter about all the traveling she did before she left the womb.

Swiss doctors being generous with the ultrasounds.  You get one every time you visit them. I didn’t realize this was unique until talking with my friends in the States who only get a few ultrasounds during their pregnancies. I get excited every time I see our baby.

Everyone who’s chivalrous, both men and women. These are the kind folks who offer to carry my bag or give me their seat on the train or do a dozen other little kindnesses. I’d never ask for this help and sometimes don’t think I need it until I hand over the heavy bag or sit down on the offered seat and realize, yeah, I actually did need that.

My husband, unprompted, reading all of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and then saying “What you’re going through is so hard. I need to do everything I can to support you.”



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The best of beautiful Santorini

Our original plan for a Greek island vacation was a multi-week sailing trip hopping from one beautiful place to another on a catamaran with friends in tow. Then I got pregnant and the idea of flitting around the Aegean Sea no longer seemed wise. So we narrowed our focus to one island: Santorini.

We chose very, very well.

The small island had everything we wanted including beautiful vistas, deep blue water, friendly people, fascinating history and delicious food. I love the Caribbean – my husband and I got engaged there – but I think the Greek islands might give them a run for their money.

Here are a few of our favorites from Santorini.

Where to stay: Oia

There are several towns on Santorini and most folks choose to stay in Fira, the largest town closest to the airport. Fira has a lot to do, including plenty of restaurants and nightlife and it’s close to some of the other sites on the island. But if you want something more romantic or relaxing, stay in Oia. It’s smaller, but still packed with wonderful restaurants, good shopping and gorgeous views. The sunsets are incredible because, unlike Fira, it has views to the west. And thanks to Santorini’s excellent and affordable bus system, you can hop a bus to Fira every 20 minutes.

One of the many beautiful sunsets in Oia.

One of the many beautiful sunsets in Oia.

Hotel: Esperas

I wish I could take credit for finding this fantastic hotel on my own, but it came highly recommended by two friends who spent their honeymoon there. It’s in Oia, a smaller town on the northern tip of the island that’s a more romantic alternative to Fira. Esperas is made up of suites carved into the ancient cliff side cave houses and it overlooks the caldera while still having a fabulous view directly west. Ammoudi Bay, where lots of boat tours take off and some amazing fish restaurants are located, sits directly below. The staff is incredibly helpful, the rooms are comfortable and the pool deck is the perfect place to waste an afternoon. Their sunset view is so good that tourists come from all over the island to stand outside Esperas’ front door and snap photos. As a bonus, they serve fantastic Greek yogurt and local honey for breakfast.

View up the cliff from the Esperas pool deck.

View up the cliff from the Esperas pool deck.



 One of the great things about vacationing on a Greek island is you can have a beachside holiday and still get a hit of culture if you want. There is so much ancient history right under your feet. There are plenty of museums and archaeological sites to visit in Santorini, but we focused on Akrotiri, a village that was destroyed around 2,000 BC by volcanic ash. Like Pompeii, the ash preserved the village so that when it was first discovered in 1967, entire buildings, paintings and ceramic jars were still perfectly in tact. It was a highly developed society with beautiful art, multi-story buildings and indoor plumbing – all before Rome got off the ground.

The site is at the south end of the island, so you’ll need to get a bus there unless you take a guided tour — and I highly recommend a guided tour to get the full story. We were really pleased with Akrotiri Santorini Guided Tours. Our guide did a great job of providing us background on Akrotiri that helped us appreciate the ruins when we saw them. They also picked us up at the Oia bus station and dropped us off in Fira, where we ducked into the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, which houses all the art and objects found in Akrotiri.

Part of the Akrotiri ruins. They thoughtfully built a roof over it!

Part of the Akrotiri ruins. They thoughtfully built a roof over it!

Santorini Wine Tours

Even though it only rains about 30 days each year in Santorini, the island manages to grow produce including cherry tomatoes, white eggplant and grapes. Lots and lots of grapes. We heard that two-thirds of the island’s land is covered in grapevines.

And all those grapes get used to make wine, something the folks in Santorini have done for 2,000 years. I’d never heard much about Greek wine before our trip, but we figured it would be a fun afternoon out to take a wine tour. Nick tasted, I spit, and by the end of the day we learned that there are some truly delicious whites and dessert wines being made here.

Santorini Wine Tour did a great job of providing us with both the history of wine making and grape growing in Santorini as well as a look at three different family-owned vineyards. The tastings were generous, the wine was delicious and our guide was fantastic.

Our guide shows us the grapevines in Santorini, which grow in a wreath shape close to the ground. It protects the grapes and allows the vines to absorb the dew.

Our guide shows us the grapevines in Santorini, which grow in a wreath shape close to the ground. It protects the grapes and allows the vines to absorb the dew.


Sunset Oia boat tours

My husband loves nothing more than being on the water. Early in our relationship, he took me deep sea fishing in North Carolina mostly to see if I could hang. Luckily I reeled in a marlin before giving into seasickness or I don’t know if our relationship would have lasted. So we couldn’t have gone on an island vacation without going out on the sea.

Our package at Esperas came with a boat tour with Sunset Oia, so we didn’t do a lot of research. When we showed up at the dock in Ammoudi Bay, we were a little worried we’d inadvertently signed up for a booze cruise. We were one of the oldest couples there and certainly the only one that was pregnant. It was only 10 a.m., but the crew of the catamaran told us the wine would be flowing freely all day.

Luckily once we got out on the water, it turned out to be a chill four-hour tour. We visited the volcanic islands, the sulfur springs, the Red Beach and the Black Beach before snorkeling and eating a surprisingly delicious barbeque lunch on the boat. It was a nice way to see parts of the island that would normally require us to take a long bus ride and then hike in.

All in all, it’s a good option for folks who just can’t do the hiking (pregnant ladies, older folks, small children) or people who don’t want to hire a boat on their own.

The sulfur springs in Santorini. The yellow water is the sulfur.

The sulfur springs in Santorini. The yellow water is the sulfur.

Restaurants in Oia:

Thalami: A cute little taverna on the cliff side with nice views of the water and reasonable prices. The perfect dinner? Stuffed peppers to start and the moussaka for your main. It was the best Greek food we had the whole trip. The experience was made sweeter by the manager, who offered me a seat while we waited for a table. “My wife is pregnant too,” he said. “You don’t need to stand in line.”

1800 Restaurant: Fine dining in an old mansion from, yes, the 1800s. Their menu puts a new spin on classic Greek dishes, and the romantic rooftop is the perfect setting.

Melitini: Adorable little tapas place with a roof deck and laid back attitude. Their small plates menu makes it fun to try a little bit of everything and give yourself an introduction to the local favorites.

Niko’s Gyros: Folks told us these were the best gyros on the island, and I think they’re right. The pork gyros and Greek salad were so good we had the exact same meal there twice. This place is a bit hard to find. TripAdvisor says it’s in Fira, but it’s actually in Oia near the bus station. Look past the place with the sign that says “Best Gyros in Santorini” and you’ll seek Niko’s, a white building with a green circle logo that says “Oia.” You can eat in at the covered patio or take away.

Lolita’s Gelato: This place is the No. 1 rated restaurant in Oia, and I can see why. It’s delicious gelato, period. Not just delicious for Greece, but plain old delicious. The flavors aren’t super inventive, but everything tastes wonderful and none of them have that chemical, overly sugared after taste that bad gelato is known for (I’m looking at you, gelato purveyors of Dubrovnik. Yuck!). We went here almost every night for dessert and were never disappointed. As a bonus, the staff is young, cute, friendly and generous with the free samples.

Lolita's Gelato in Oia. Their signature flavor is Greek Viagra.

Lolita’s Gelato in Oia. Their signature flavor is Greek Viagra.


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Swiss rules for naming babies

There are lots of rules in Switzerland. And I’m not just talking about speed limits and littering laws. The Swiss laws get personal.

Most of them exist to keep you from irritating your neighbors. Before we moved here, we read stories of people forbidden to do laundry on Sunday and of men told to pee sitting down after 10 p.m. because they made too much noise standing up. We have been shushed by our neighbors for laughing too loudly on our balcony. I have been scolded in the grocery store by another customer for touching too many peaches, and my husband has been scolded at the gym for sweating too much.

So my husband and I were prepared for there to be rules about the baby we’re having in Switzerland. But we were surprised to learn that the Swiss have rules about what we can name her.

The Swiss authorities must approve all baby names. According to Swiss Watching, an excellent book about life in Switzerland by Diccon Bewes, the rules include:

  • Forbidding any name that will “harm the child’s well-being or be offensive to a third party”, so shocking, insulting or laughable names are out. Bewes says names like “Mary Christmas” or “Richard Head” would be out.
  • No giving a boy a girl’s name or a girl a boy’s name. Some of the top 100 girls’ names in 2013 in the United States might not pass this Swiss test. Avery, Riley, Peyton and Aubrey might be too masculine.
  • Biblical “bad guys” like Cain and Judas are forbidden.
  • No naming your child a brand name. No Chanel, Porsche, Mercedes or Bentley.
  • No place names. Paris Hilton is a no-go. So are names like Brooklyn, London and Sydney – all of which were in the U.S. top 100 last year.
  • Surnames can’t be used as first names. Most of my friends from the South are appalled by this one.
  • No making up a brand new name. Condoleeza Rice would never have gotten that name if she was born in Switzerland.

At first I chalked this up to being Swiss. A country that has rules about how to pee almost certainly isn’t going to let something as important as baby names slide by unchecked. Then I realized it’s not just the Swiss — lots of European countries apparently have rules for baby naming, including:

  • Germany: It’s similar to Switzerland. No boys names for girls and vice versa; no brand names and no object names. Gwyneth Paltrow would never have been able to name her daughter Apple in Germany.
  • Sweden: No names that cause offense or discomfort.
  • Denmark: Parents must choose from a list of 7,000 approved names.
  • Portugal: Provides lists of banned and approved names for parents to consult.
  • Italy: Women can’t pass their surnames onto their children, even with a hyphenated last name.
  • Iceland: A committee rules on any unusual names.

Luckily none of our chosen names violate the Swiss rules. But if they did, I think we’d discuss it with the U.S. Embassy and try to find a workaround. Call me a loosey-goosey American, but our approach encourages creativity and I like that. It allows new names to evolve and emerge. There are some great names that don’t conform to the Swiss rules like Sydney, Austin, Reese and Jackson. These names simply wouldn’t exist if we all had rules like Switzerland’s and that’s kind of sad.

But it’s about more than creativity. If my government doesn’t trust me to use good judgment to pick out an appropriate name for my child, why does it trust me to use good judgment to raise them? I wonder if the Swiss parents whose baby names are rejected get tagged for special parental supervision. Somehow I doubt it.

All these naming rules seem more about conformity and protecting some cultural ideal rather than protecting the child. For me, that conformity isn’t valuable enough to warrant the effort. Clearly, I’m not Swiss!

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Warning to pregnant women: Godsends and blowhards ahead

When you’re pregnant some people think that, in addition to growing a small human, you’ve also developed Teflon skin. These people assume they can say anything to you – no matter how rude or inappropriate or invasive – and you will smile kindly and bless their asinine remark like a benevolent fertility goddess.

A pregnant friend of mine said a man asked her “how many critters” she had “in there.” I had a woman point at me on the street in Bellagio, Italy, like I was a zoo animal and gasp, “Baby coming out soon!” And almost every pregnant woman has had some blowhard tell her that she looks like she’s “about to pop.”

Thanks. My hormones are out of whack, I’m the size of a small parade float and I’m terrified of that “popping” you just casually referenced. Your sensitivity is touching.

Then there are those godsends, the people who say the exact right thing often at the moment you need it most. There was the tour guide in Zurich who said she didn’t even notice I was pregnant at first because I looked so wonderful, the French man who gave me free samples of nougat from his market stall because they were “good for the baby,” and Italian chef who gave me a heart-shaped wine stopper and said, “You are joining a very important group. You’re a momma now.”

Those godsends are the people I treasure, and theirs are the words I try to remember when I feel fat, uncomfortable and just plain over being pregnant. I especially treasure them when I run into a blowhard.

And sometimes, you get both at once. My husband Nick and I met both a godsend and a blowhard at one dinner table in Istanbul.

I was only about three months pregnant and not showing. We were in Istanbul over Easter and went to a fish restaurant with big family style tables. They sat us with the only other foreigners – a French couple on holiday – and pretty soon we were chatting. They had three sons who were off on their own for dinner, and this was a rare date night for them. I sat next to the wife, and Nick was next to the husband.

When the husband asked if he could smoke at the end of dinner, we told him I was pregnant. Immediately the wife’s face lit up and she started talking about how much she loved being pregnant.

“I felt wonderful when I was pregnant,” she said. It was a magical time and after each child, she couldn’t wait to repeat it again. Sure, she gained weight and it could be uncomfortable, but being pregnant just felt so right to her. I was at the tail end of a trimester characterized by nausea and exhaustion, and pregnancy was starting to feel like a nine month hassle. This woman was the first to tell me how fantastic pregnancy was. It was exactly what I needed, and I ate it up.

Across the table, I could tell her husband was talking Nick’s ear off, but I couldn’t hear anything he said. During our walk back to the hotel, I told Nick what she’d said and how reassuring I’d found her. Nick started laughing.

“Do you know what her husband told me?” he asked. The husband’s monologue went something like this:

Every time she got pregnant, she gained 20 kilos*. Do you understand kilos? Do you know how much that is? Every time, 20 kilos. And then she’d have the baby, and she’d want to have another one right away. Finally, I had to put my foot down. You have to put your foot down, or they will want to have a dozen kids.

We chuckled. There they were, a godsend and a blowhard in the same family.

Thank God I wasn’t sitting next to the husband.


*Twenty kilograms is 44 pounds. Most French doctors tell women to gain 22 to 26 pounds during pregnancy. American doctors recommend gaining 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy.

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Last chance, baby: The Baby Bucket List

Traveling in Le Baux in Provence -- and checking off an item from my Baby Bucket List.

Visiting Le Baux in Provence — and checking off an item from my Baby Bucket List.

I’m 26 weeks pregnant — which means I only have 14 weeks until my life is radically, permanently changed.

I’m excited to meet the wee chick who’s been turning somersaults behind my belly button. But I also feel like there’s a countdown clock on my old life, and time has almost run out.

Coincidentally, I’m also unemployed for the next 14 weeks. Long story short, I’m living in Switzerland and on a leave of absence from my job. For the first time in 11 years I’m not working or in grad school.

It feels like the perfect time to work on a Baby Bucket List.

For me, a Baby Bucket List isn’t really about the baby. I’m already covering my bases in prepping for the birth – prenatal yoga, birth classes, visiting the hospital, buying all the supplies, reading Dr. Spock.

No, for me a Baby Bucket List is the stuff I want to do now because once the baby arrives, I won’t be able to do it again for months or even years. These are the things I love to do or have always wanted to do – and, in my mind, this is my last chance to do them for a long while.

I have five big things on my Baby Bucket List right now – travel, write, read, exercise and bake. But because I’m Type A, I’m worried there are important things I’ve forgotten. What else will be rare to impossible to do once the baby arrives? What else should be on my Baby Bucket List?

To all the moms out there, I need your help. Help me make by Baby Bucket List complete. I want to know:

  • What else should I do over the next 14 weeks to take full advantage of this time?
  • What do you wish you’d done more of before your first baby was born?
  • What do you wish you’d done less of? What was a waste of time?

I’ll take the best ideas I receive, add them to Baby Bucket List and write about the experience here.

Here’s a big thank you in advance to all the mom’s out there who will help me make these last 14 weeks count.

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My dirty little food secret

I’ve always been a food snob when I travel. If I’ve spent the time and money to go far, far away, the last thing I want to eat is close-to-home American food. Why seek out burgers, pizza or chocolate chip cookies when you’re surrounded by local delicacies, most of which are far better than the poor copies of American food that touristy restaurants serve?

My rule? Eat local wherever I traveled and avoid American dishes. Most of the time it wasn’t hard. France, Spain, Italy, Thailand, Cambodia, Argentina – it wasn’t exactly a sacrifice to eat the delicious local food in these places. Even in Bali and Scotland – two places with my least favorite local foods – I gamely ate up the nasi goreng, haggis, blood pudding and greasy chips in the name of experiencing the culture. I turned my nose up at those Americans queuing at McDonalds for their Royales with Cheese.

So that makes me feel even guiltier about my dirty little food secret: Since we moved to Europe this year, I’ve been eating American food all over the continent.

It didn’t start out that way. When we arrived, I gamely tried the local Swiss foods like rosti potatoes, pork, sausages, raclette and fondue. But pretty quickly, I got sick of the same flavors over and over again. The Swiss are great at many things – timely trains, expensive watches, gourmet chocolate – but culinary variety isn’t one of them.

Soon we started traveling on the weekends, and I got away from Swiss food. I figured that would solve my palate boredom, and for awhile, it did. We ate delicious curries in London, steak and pastries in Paris, fish in Lisbon, It was a blessed relief from pork, potatoes and cheese.

But pretty soon, that wasn’t enough. Both my husband and I were craving flavors we couldn’t easily find. Burgers. Barbeque. Tacos. Green curry. American microbrews. Deli sandwiches. Soft baked cookies.

So when I read about Freddie’s Deli before our April trip to Paris, my mouth watered. Freddie’s – opened last year by Kristin Frederick, the same woman who brought burgers and food trucks to Paris – serves American-style* pastrami, pulled pork and cheese steak sandwiches along with Brooklyn Beer and brownies. I could hardly wait to hop on a train.

On our last day in Paris, we went to Freddie’s for lunch. We were not disappointed. As pastrami juice and pulled pork dripped from our fingers, we sighed with sated relief. It wasn’t French, but it was damn good.

Once we started eating American food in Europe, we couldn’t stop. We still ate mostly local cuisine when we traveled, but we also didn’t feel guilty about the occasional American treat. That led to Shake Shack in Istanbul, Thai food in Paris, froyo in Zurich and burgers and fries in Provence. Soon we took it even further. We ate Mexican and Belgian food in Vilnius and Indian food in Amsterdam.

And you know what? It was all delicious. And because we looked outside the traditional cuisine box, we discovered new culinary corners of the cities we visited. We learned that there was amazing Indian in Amsterdam; that food trucks were becoming a thing in Paris and that some creative chefs in Provence were serving kick ass burgers.

So I’m amending my rule to say, “Eat local wherever I go and eat American-style food if it’s made local.” I still want to avoid the McDonalds and KFCs when I travel (Shake Shack was a delicious exception to the rule), but anything made locally is fair game.

Here are a few of the favorite out-of-context eateries we’ve discovered this year:

BB Bistrot Steak House: Fantastic burgers in the heart of Provence. Not far from where Van Gogh painted Irises, these folks are serving up great burgers, fries and guac for eat in or take away. On TripAdvisor, where it’s the No. 5 restaurant in St.-Remy-de-Provence, it’s called Au Bon Burger, but the name on the sign in BB Bistrot Steak House.

The Bite: Solid burger joint in Zurich that does a new special burger daily. The fries are good, as are the salads and desserts. Best of all? In addition to a decent list of beers, they brew their own iced tea. In a continent that thinks bottled Peach Nestea is the last word in iced tea, this is a minor miracle.

Fork & Bottle: This restaurant on the edge of Zurich is run by American ex-pats. Their menu focuses on fresh and local ingredients, which means it changes weekly. What doesn’t change is that the food is delicious, and they serve it in a gorgeous beer garden. Oh, and they have brunch too!

Freddie’s Deli: American-style deli in Paris. Pastramis, pulled pork and cheese steaks along with Brooklyn Beer and brownies. Friendly service, but beware of bad weather. There’s no space to eat inside.

Jemoli: This Swiss department store in Zurich has a lovely food hall in the basement with lots of yummy things, but my favorite is their frozen yogurt. It’s made from actual tangy yogurt and you can top it with anything from fresh blueberries to crumbled Kagi Fret chocolates (the far superior Swiss version of the Kit Kat).

Koh-i-Noor: Great Indian food and fantastic service in Amsterdam. We had mostly classic dishes and particularly enjoyed all the vegetarian options.

Rene: Belgian food in Vilnius. Wonderful sausages, frite and roasted meats – plus a huge selection of Belgian beers. We had a great time even though we came in on the wrong night for the famous Belgian mussels. Phone ahead to find out when they’ll have them fresh and in stock.

Shake Shack Istanbul: This one is a clear violation of my rule, but it’s still the best milkshake I’ve had in Europe.

Tres Mexicanos: Not the best Mexican food I’ve ever had but definitely the best Mexican food I’ve found in Europe. This restaurant in Vilnius has delicious nachos and burritos with a selection of Mexican beers.

*Anyone who’s eaten a sandwich in Europe knows that “American-style” sandwiches are hard to come by. In Europe, a sandwich is a single piece of meat or cheese between two large pillows of bread. There may be mayo or a lettuce leaf. Maybe. By contrast, American sandwiches are filled with layers of delicious meat, cheese, veggies and condiments. The filling dwarfs the bread. The sandwich is one area where American can confidently claim culinary superiority.


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A Mary Poppins moment in Provence

When I left to spend two weeks in Provence, I thought I knew what to expect. The vacation would be mostly about beautiful food and beautiful scenery – gorgeous town markets stuffed with olives, dried sausages and cheese, bakeries overflowing with flaky pastry and fresh baguettes, Van Gogh’s Cyprus trees and irises, dark purple lavender fields, world-class vineyards. And St.-Remy-de-Provence, our home base for the holiday, delivered on all of the above.

I didn’t expect to be moved by great art. Even though many painters created their most famous works in Provence, few of the canvases are still in the region. And I can guarantee  that the last thing I expected was to be awed by a light show inside a limestone mine.

If it had been up to me, I never would have gone. My friend Sunny loves Gustav Klimt and had read that the nearby town of Le Baux had a Klimt exhibit. Once we got there, we found it was actually a Klimt light show. Just those two words – “light show” – made me roll my eyes. What kind of cheesy, new age crap was this?

We spent the morning in Le Baux wandering around the ruins of the chateau and popping into the shops. The views were stunning and the ruins fascinating. Even if the light show ended up being a bust, the trip was already worth it. As the afternoon heat hit, we headed down to the Carrières de Lumières, the old limestone mine that housed the Klimt show.

We walked from the blinding sunlight into the dark mine and for a moment I felt disoriented. I had expected a low, cramped mine with laser lights flashing, like a disco roller rink. Instead, we’d entered a space with soaring ceilings and massive smooth white columns and walls – and projected onto all of them were huge colorful paintings.

I stared open mouthed as classical music swelled around me. I tried to step forward and  tilted off balance as the images around me morphed into something new. I thought the paintings would be static projections, but instead they changed, merging and bleeding into each other. No two surfaces in the massive mine had the same image at the same time – to my left was a painting of a statuesque redhead with sad eyes while straight ahead, across the room, was a pale woman with dark hair, her eyes closed and a small smile on her face. Everywhere I looked, there was something new.

Then the lights went out and the music died. After a few seconds of silence, the music started again and red flowers began appearing on the walls. Then yellow ones. Then blue. As I watched, an entire painting of a field of flowers appeared, layer by layer, on the walls around me. It was like watching the painter at work, building one idea on top of another.

I stood there, dumbfounded and emotional. I couldn’t remember the last time art had hit me this hard, had grabbed me by the eyeballs and not let me go. I felt like a small child experiencing something for the first time. I felt like Mary Poppins jumping into a chalk drawing. I was  inside the paintings.

I stood there trying to figure out why this worked. Why wasn’t it cheesy and awful? I think it worked because the directors had created an exhibit that made me see the paintings as the artist envisioned them – intense, emotional and larger than life.

Ann Patchett, the novelist and essay writer, once wrote that writing a story is like trying to capture a beautiful butterfly. The live butterfly is colorful and moves with amazing grace just as the story idea, in your mind, is beautiful, graceful and alive. But to capture the butterfly (or commit the story to paper), you have to catch it, pin it and, yes, kill it in order to keep it in one place. The beautiful, graceful butterfly (or story) is now this dead lifeless shadow of its former self. The captured story is never as beautiful as the one in your mind.

I felt the same way about the Carrières de Lumières exhibit. Perhaps something about the size, the light, the music and the art direction brought the paintings to life in a way that a canvas alone could not. Maybe this was the emotion Klimt wanted me to feel when I stared at his canvases. Maybe this exhibit brought to life the butterflies he set out to paint.

My amateur photos don’t do justice to the experience. But they’re the best I have! Please visit the Carrières de Lumières web site for some truly stunning photos.

Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux Gustav Klimt exhibit in Le Baux

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The secret to throwing the best baby shower ever (hint: it’s not a game, present or party favor)

With my mom at the baby shower.

With my mom at the baby shower.

I’m having my first baby in a foreign country where my husband and I don’t know very many people. When I got pregnant, we realized that living far from family and friends meant we’d be on our own for the most part, with lots of supportive Skype calls and care packages from the United States. And, of course, it meant no baby shower.

So I was deeply touched when my mother’s friends – all of them moms themselves – insisted on throwing a shower for me. Southern women are big on tradition, and they didn’t see why I shouldn’t have a baby shower just because I was an ocean away. If I could come home for the shower, then great. If not, they’d throw the party at my mom’s house while I participated via Skype.

Then luckily a business trip brought me back to the States for two weeks and on a Saturday I was in my parents’ living room wearing a sash that read “Mommy To Be” and surrounded by the women I grew up with – my Sunday school teachers, my middle and high school teachers, the moms of the neighborhood kids.

I was pleased so many of them attended, but I was also a little nervous. My history with baby showers is iffy. Almost every one I’ve been to involved stupid and sometimes gross games (ex: Microwave a chocolate bar in a diaper. Pass it around and make the guests guess what kind of bar it was before it looked like a gnarly baby poo.). Or, worse than that, it was filled with moms either one-upping each other with their horrible birth tales – “I was in labor for 37 hours and then had a C-section!” – or telling the expectant mom and her childless friends to, “enjoy it now because once you have a kid, life as you know it is over.” It was a lot to bear without so much as a mimosa for moral support. After each of these showers, I would go home, thank the Lord for birth control pills and pour myself a glass of wine.

If my shower went south, wine sadly wasn’t an option. I smiled and prepared myself for the worst.

After everyone had a plate of food and a mimosa (a good sign!), we sat in a circle and I waited for the games to begin. Instead, everyone chatted about normal things – work, grown children, vacations – and asked normal baby questions. How was I feeling? Were we picking out names? Would the baby have dual citizenship because of her overseas birth?

Then the ladies in charge called for order. Instead of stupid games or horrifying stories, they asked all the moms to share their best parenting advice.

Over the next 45 minutes, I decided that all baby showers should be thrown by mothers with grown children. Their advice didn’t focus on breast milk vs. formula or whether or not to Ferberize. They didn’t talk about finding the right daycare, preschool, summer camp, piano instructor, baseball team. No one brought up picky eaters or the pros and cons of co-sleeping.

No, the years had stripped away all the nonsense, all the things that didn’t count, and left behind the essence of what they believed made for a great parent. These women didn’t remember the small things they probably worried about as young parents. Instead, they recalled the things that truly mattered. These were either the things that, with time and perspective, they knew had made a real difference in their children’s lives — or the things they felt they had gotten sadly, regretfully wrong.

As I listened, I started to cry. Normally I would blame hormones, but it was more than that. Being at the center of all that maternal wisdom, all that distilled love and experience, overwhelmed me. The things they shared with me rang true – either because my own mother had done them and I had felt their impact or because the regret they expressed was so genuine I could feel it like my own.

When it ended, I felt both elated to be joining this club and an incredible responsibility to do the job well. It was the best baby shower gift I could have received.

I’ve related this story a couple times since and all of my younger mom friends have asked, “What advice did they give?” It seems many of us have had our fill of parenting blogs and books with advice about the day-to-day. We are drowning in tactical details and decisions. We want big themes, advice with perspective.

So I’ll share my baby shower gift with you. Here’s a selection of the advice I got from that fabulous group of Southern mommas:

  • Let the child march to his own drum.
  • Read to them all the time, even when they’re old enough to read to themselves. It’s good for their development and soothes all kinds of woes. And it doesn’t have to be Amelia Bedelia. Read them whatever you’re reading. (This woman listened to her mom read The Grapes of Wrath aloud when she was in elementary school.)
  • Let the baby get used to your schedule. She will. Trust me.
  • Teach her to value money by giving her a lump sum at the beginning of the school year to cover all expenses. Don’t bail her out if she runs dry in February.
  • Don’t worry about keeping your house clean. Houses keep, children don’t.
  • Listen. Never be too busy to listen.
  • Don’t overschedule them. Kids do best when they have free time to explore. And they will learn to amuse themselves.
  • Touch, hugs and “I love you” matter, at every age. Don’t be stingy with any of them. Ever.
  • Don’t push them in a specific direction in terms of school or a career. Raise them to be independent and then step back and let them be.
  • “Because I said so,” is OK sometimes. Seriously. Parenthood isn’t a democracy.
  • Listen to the teacher but don’t always automatically take his side. Make sure you ask your child for her side before you make a ruling.
  • You don’t need to be your child’s friend. Be her parent. If you do a good job at that, you’ll raise someone you like as well as love, and the friendship will come later.
  • Don’t break her spirit.
  • Don’t compare her to others – friends, siblings, cousins, child actors, whoever. Appreciate her for who she is.
  • Encourage their gifts, even if you don’t always understand them.
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