Juicy Olive

The quest for “the good life” should never be complete but it should definitely begin now.

X’s and O’s to PDX June 17, 2009

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A few weeks ago I visited Stephanie in Portland, Oregon. It had been years since I was there. Boy, can that city impress. The weather was remarkable, the beer was delicious and the scenery was breathtaking.

Since returning, I’ve reflected frequently on that visit, and I can honestly say I really love Portland. The people there really have the right idea about how to live. For the most part, everyone I met had great jobs and professional ambition. But unlike other cities, it truly seemed that people’s careers were important, but not center stage. Instead, Lifestyle (with a capital “L”) was the star. Everyone was focused on fitness. Around each corner of The Pearl neighborhood was a health food store or a fitness retailer. People got up early on the weekends so they could take a hike – a real one…on a mountain. Instead of racing from one party to the next, everyone seemed very content with hanging out on someone’s porch the whole afternoon or having a quiet dinner and calling it quits for the night.

Sometimes living in a big city does me in. The pace, the people, the frenzy…they can overwhelm and underfulfill. Now, even a few short weeks after my return from Portland, I’m struggling to figure out how to retain the Oregonian mindset here in hectic Chicago. How can I find a slice of the simple life? Where can I find gorgeous outdoor scenery that isn’t packed with people?

I suppose until I find those little nooks in the city, I’ll recall my fun weekend in Portland. For anyone considering a visit there sometime soon, let me know. I’ve got a wealth of recommendations for you. Whether it’s the delicious beer in the Brewery Blocks, the hidden gem Italian food at a neighborhood trattoria, a hike through Multnomah Falls, wine tasting in the Willamette Valley, watching the windsurfers in Hood River or trying on the darling hats at Bonnet – there’s something for everyone in such a beautiful city.

A gorgeous setting at Multnomah Falls

A gorgeous setting at Multnomah Falls

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Moroccan Musings April 16, 2009

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Two months ago, I was in North Africa. Two months. I can’t believe that so much time has passed so quickly since that glorious adventure.

A typical hammam in Morocco - pay a surprisingly low fee to soak in the healing vapors in these gloriously appointed steam chambers.

A typical hammam in Morocco - pay a surprisingly low fee to soak in the healing vapors in these gloriously appointed steam chambers.

Two months ago, I was finishing up a hammam at Les Bains de Marrakech – feeling high from the rose oil and steam and orange flowers and sweet mint tea. Upon everyone’s suggestion, I booked the full afternoon of relaxation. For a mere $70, I received the works, including:

* A hammam scrub – wearing just my skivvies, I was soaped up with black soap, then scrubbed me down aggressively with a stiff mitt. This experienced “scrubbing lady” worked wonders: rubbing layer after layer of dead skin away – leaving me pink and clean.

* A 90-minute massage. Heavenly.

* A 30-minute rosepetal bath. Dreamy.

* A 30-minute nap. Indulgent.

* A plate of sticky pastries stuffed with almonds and drizzled with honey. Gluttony.

The way to find yourself in Morocco? Among other things, settle in at a rooftop terrace with a cold lager and a few blank pages.

The way to find yourself in Morocco? Among other things, settle in at a rooftop terrace with a cold lager and a few blank pages.

Two months ago, I was writing in a journal every day – recording thoughts, experiences, ideas and dreams. Within the pages of the journal, I decided to give the Juicy Olive a whirl – resolving that sharing my philosphy of life with others may just make a difference. I wrote about how shocked I was at the drastic misunderstandings we Americans have of the muslim world. I sketched pictures: little boys hammering metal into lanterns, women offering to paint my hands with henna and the old man with pliers and a jar of teeth offering to cure my dental dramas. I tallied the prices of my purchases: $1 for a pair of earrings; $10 for a silk and cashmere scarf; $100 for an antique wedding blanket; $90 for a camel hide pouf. I recorded the way the clear, dry sun felt on my skin and the way the preserved lemon smarted on my tongue. I jotted down words in arabic and wished that I could learn the ancient caligraphy of such a gorgeous language. I rushed to write down the little history lessons I acquired throughout the day. I spent a whole day writing in french and was pleased to realize how quickly it came back to me. I transcribed lyrics from songs that were programmed into my iPod that week – knowing that it was partly music, but mostly their association with that trip that made me so desperate to remember them. I pasted ticket stubs, receipts and business cards; leaves, petals and fabric into the pages – knowing that one day they’d make memories come a little faster, emotions return to me with very little effort.

Two months ago, I left a little bit of myself behind in Morocco – the unsure woman who feels burdened by some of life’s meanness. I came back with a new piece – the woman who is interested in showing the world who is boss and who knows in her heart that the good life is something everyone can have. It may not come in the same form for everyone, but it’s something that everyone deserves if they want it and are open to it.

Two months may have passed already, but I plan never to forget the times I had in Morocco. I want to keep finding new adventures to add to these memories. That’s what Juicy Olive is: a quest to share our pursuit of the good life and encourage each other to go the hell after it.

 

List Therapy April 8, 2009

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I’m a virgo. Qualities of we fair late-August/early-September babies include: modest and shy; meticulous and reliable; practical and diligent; intelligent and analytical. In addition, we can also be fussy, overly critical, a worrier and a perfectionist. I’ve also often heard that Virgos are the most organized of the bunch.

While I don’t agree with astrological predictions all the time, it is fair to say that I posess varying degrees of the aforementioned traits. The most surprising one, though, is being organized. Anyone who knows me that tidiness is NOT my strong suit. While I’m not a hoarder or a clutter-lover, I’ve been known to completely walk past a stray item in my house for months without doing anything about it. I HATE putting away laundry. And my office – these days especially – looks like a paper factory blew up in it!

I’m realizing, however, that what I lack in visual organization, however, I make up for it in cognitive organization. I’m a planner. I absolutely LOVE my at-a-glance calendar and always write in it in pencil in case something changes – that way it can be absolutely accurate (this would be the perfectionist trait rearing its face.)

I also ADORE lists. Give me a topic and I’ll make a list. Groceries – I’ve got my trip to Jewel mastered aisle-by-aisle. Daily to-dos – I organize it by client and then leave space on my list to record billable hours. Housework – even though I abhor the laundry, it finds itself once a week on my list of things to do around my place.

But not all of my lists are task-oriented. Many of them are aspirational. One of them – in particular – has been particularly fun recently. I have been adding to my wish list of vacation locales. Some are exotic, others more regional. For each, I have a romatic vision in my mind of what the vacation would be, and I can’t wait to measure those visions against reality.

Below is a snippet of places I’d love to go – sooner than later if possible. Have any of you ever been there? I’d love to hear from you about what tips, tricks and must-visit/must-avoid destinations should be added to the itinerary (also a list, but in a handy calendar form…heavenly for we Virgos!)

  • Portugal
  • Greece
  • Turkey
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua
  • Idaho
  • Vermont
  • New Hampshire
  • Mississippi
  • South Carolina
  • North Carolina
  • Savannah, Georgia
  • West Virginia
  • Lake Powell, Utah
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Thailand
  • Cambodia
  • Viet Nam
  • Alaska
  • Hawaii
  • Fiji
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

Where else should I visit? What else should I see? The excitement about a process like this (especially when friends get involved) is that we can keep adding to it and daydream about fun vacations together in our futures! If we get to go on an adventure to one of these exciting spots, I promise I’ll only let my good Virgo traits come along for the ride!

 

Heart is happy April 7, 2009

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During my weekend getaway to California recently, my friends and I spent several days capturing that raw and gorgeous feeling only available in wine country. I awoke every morning watching the sun rise over a glorious vineyard landscape and shortly thereafter would lace up my sneakers, tune up the iPod and head out to pound the pavement in the small trails between fields of pinot grigio, cabernet franc and chardonnay.

This scenery makes running 3 miles far more enjoyable!

This scenery makes running 3 miles far more enjoyable!

Jonathan (aka – Wine Hawk, aka – Bridget’s incredible husband, aka – my pretend husband) had scheduled an incredible lineup of tastings for us: Kuleto, Mill Creek, Dry Creek, Woodenhead…the list goes on. Sitting in a sun-drenched field each afternoon, we’d picnic and plan for more great wine discussions with such talented farmers. Our evenings opened up to excellent food, delicious conversation and the sharing of a bottle or two of the day’s purchases.

The happy couple - Bridget and Jonathan's 2nd anniversary!

I, Wine Hawk, take you, Bridget...

The trip had a specific purpose – to celebrate Bridget and Jonathan’s second wedding anniversary. In addition to our gorgeous surroundings, succulent wines and incredible food, we were commemorating two fun-filled years that they’ve had as a happy couple. We even revisited the site of their nuptials and had a fake (and silly!) ceremony to send them into similar fortune in the years to come!

I barely knew Bridget and Jonathan when they wed back in 2007 and, as such, didn’t attend their wedding. Over a drink at the Harvest Inn (the site of their reception), we reminisced about the past couple of years and agreed that it feels like we’ve all known each other for ages. It was a lovely oportunity to give thanks for their strong marriage and our evergrowing friendship.  

It was a fun and special trip. They’ve even decided to make it an annual event, and we hope that more of our friends can make it next year to celebrate and take part in all of the beautiful fun. If they know what’s wise, they’ll be  counting down the days until the Napa Valley sun hits their faces and the Sonoma wines tickle their tastebuds.

Since returning, I have thought a lot about my California weekend. During such stressful times with the economy, jobs and houses taking up valuable real estate in our thoughts, it’s important to remind ourselves of the simple things – family, friends and good old-fashioned romance – that make it all worthwhile.

Heart is Happy - enough said.

Heart is Happy - enough said.

 

California Dreamin’ March 26, 2009

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This time tomorrow I’ll be in northern California – enjoying a glass of wine with great friends and plotting our antics for the coming days.

I’ve got a small love affair in my mind with that area of the country. Everyone appears to be healthy. They love Mother Earth. They appreciate great food. They know their wine. Farming is a way of life that coexists with mountain bikers, gourmet chefs, options traders and hybrid cars. They don’t fight the weather and, in return, they’re rewarded with a mild climate that’s tough to hate.

Whenever I’m returning to a place I love, I get nervous. What if I love it so much that I don’t want to leave? What if I will forever compare my life in Chicago to the fairy tale life I’ve created for myself as a goat farmer in Sonoma? (It should be noted that in the latter I have a gorgeous husband who is quite handy and loves to give me killer scalp massages. My fake life also features an on-call spa and a personal cook to grease the wheels of my oh-so-strenuous work.)

Eventually I assuage my anxieties by remembering that IF the goat farm was mine, it’s true I’d have access to killer chevre all year round. But I’d also be tethered to my life there, and I’d be unable to take all of my grand adventures. I also have to admit that I love the four seasons we get here in the midwest. I could do without the severity of January and February, but I’m also so glad for variety.

Could it be that my California Dream is unattainable and unrealistic? Is it possible that I concoct these fantasies as a means to escape from the reality of the daily grind? Yes and Yes. But here’s the thing – isn’t that why we scrimp and save and plan for a getaway? To do just that – get away and escape?

Realizing this, I’m less nervous that I’ll channel my inner Little Bo Peep while I’m driving through the Russian River Valley. I’m now more excited that I’ll get to entertain myself by playing make believe for just a little while.

And you have to admit that giving into your dreams is a lot less messy than cleaning up after a herd of goats!

 

Learn from the Locals March 23, 2009

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During her trip to Italy, my friend Stephanie took a cooking class. For her, it wasn’t so much about learning to prepare a bangin’ bolognese sauce, but rather that she left the class understanding the cultural idioms and nuanced practices that make the Italian people so special. Stephanie said that she’ll always take a class in a foreign destination from now on.

With that tenet in mind and my trip to Morocco around the corner, I began my research and came across Souk Cuisine. The  class promised to convey the intricacies of Marrakchi culture. It did not disappoint.

The day of the class came, and I met seven other tourists at Cafe la France. We split into groups to shop. My team was assigned to buy herbs, oils, grains and vegetables. Remarkably, this simple grocery list became the most unique cultural syllabus of my journey to North Africa. Through the two hour shopping trip, our guide took us to stall after stall of food vendors – each selling something different: preserved lemons, cured meat, fresh mint, giant pumpkins and dried beans – to name a few.

This gentleman sells numerous kinds of mint - each with a different purpose. The green bags hanging overhead contain dried mint - just add water (and a ton of sugar) and you've got yourself "Moroccan Whiskey" (also known as sweet mint tea.)

A mint vendor - each variety with a different purpose. Fresh for cooking and dried for "Moroccan Whiskey" (AKA sweet mint tea.)

We learned that the Moroccan women awake early each morning and make an extensive trip through the markets to buy all of the food for the day.

Lunch is the primary meal. Served in the early afternoon, it is a huge feast and includes multiple courses. The women begin preparing it each morning while their husbands leave the home and their kids go to school.

Moroccan cuisine is based on such few ingredients: cilantro, mint, cumin, paprika, cayenne, salt. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots and onions. Raisins, dates and apricots. Couscous, lentils and bread. Chicken, fish and lamb. Yet do not underestimate the power of such a simple shopping list. The wondrous and varried meals that can be concocted with these items can make any mouth water.

Our shopping continued, and I learned the proper way to barter and the times when you just give in and pay the $1.50 for a huge bag of salt. I learned that butter sits in enormous vats in the open air, and olive oil is dispensed to the truly savvy into the clay vessels they bring to the vendor. 

Grain Souk

Grain Souk

I tasted the salty-bitter tang of preserved lemon and watched in wonder as a man pulled six fresh eggs from a chicken cage (feathers and gunk still attached to the shell!) and plopped them into a plastic baggie for transport. I marveled at the way the spice sellers knew not only how to measure the perfect amount of tumeric onto the scale, but also how to prescribe homeopathic remedies with the same herbs and spices.

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Being a person who is sincerely interested (perhaps obsessed?) with the process of food going from farm to table to mouth, I knew this was going to be fun for me. But it became instantly obvious that this was a special experience for anyone partaking in Souk Cuisine when we joined the other groups in the kitchens. Everyone was abuzz with tales of whom they had met and what they had seen in the labyrinthe-like food souks. We talked about whether we felt we had recieved the best deal on squash and what it was like to watch the fishmonger quickly skin, fillet and mince the sardines right there on the wooden board. We all agreed that witnessing the lamb meat being lowered into the subterranean ovens was fascinating and that the remaining sheeps heads were exciting and repulsive at once.

Over the next two hours, we prepared a multi-course luncheon that included several vegetable salads, including my favorite, Zaalouk – an eggplant puree heavy on olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro. We made a couscous with carrots, onions and raisins and sardine meatballs, which were surprisingly flavorful.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

And we baked two different cookies – my favorite being a sesame shortbread. Our hard work was rewarded with eating the incredible food on a sun-drenched terrace. We sipped rose wine and lounged on pillows on the warm terracotta tiles.

I learned virtually more in those six hours about life in Morocco than I did throughout the rest of my vacation. I gained an immense appreciation for the concepts of family and commerce and gender roles – just by buying groceries, preparing and eating lunch. I spent time with Moroccan women who firmly imparted their knowledge of good food, cultural mores and simple traditions. I think I shall never forget the image of one woman carrying a steaming tagine full of our couscous royale on top of her head. I’ll probably never chop cilantro again without recalling how another woman scolded me for not being precise with my knife. I may always look at lentils and want to dip my warm hand into the cool underlayers of those smooth, pebble-like legumes.

Should you find yourself in the position to journey to a unique locale, don’t forget to learn from the locals. They will teach you something a guidebook never can, and you will appreciate the destination so much more!

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

 

What’s In A Name? March 16, 2009

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Last month I went on vacation to Morocco. It was glorious. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the people all mesmerized me and put my senses on overdrive. In the coming days, I’ll post more about the trip, but for the time being it’s important to note how influential it was over the decision to start this blog.

For years my friends have told me that I should share my experiences with the rest of the world. I suppose I always felt it was grossly self-important to be pontificating about my daily adventures, when there are so many other groundbreaking issues to learn about. While I was in Morocco, however, I realized that I had found myself in a place where many others never think to voyage, and that’s a shame. It is a gorgeous country full of kind and interesting people. As a woman travelling solo, many were concerned about my safety – however I can confidently report that I felt very safe and secure in Morocco.

What I think made my vacation “successful” was that I was thoughtful about where I was going, what places I would visit and what I wanted to achieve. I had an idea in my head about what would make me happy once I got there, and all of my planning was centered around getting to that ideal.

My lightbulb moment came to me at Cafe Arabe. After a morning of bargaining in the souks, I was ready to have a relaxing lunch. I found my way to this gorgeous, chic terrace that had a cozy lounge-like feel. As I sat down to a chilled half-bottle of Moroccan white wine, the waiter brought me a lovely little bowl of olives. Using the toothpicks provided, I scouted through the bowl looking for the perfect first bite. I wanted it to be flavorful, firm and – yes – juicy. The hard work paid off, and the treat was delicious.

The perfect juicy olive?

The perfect juicy olive?

 

By the time my b’stilla lunch arrived, I had savored a few more olives – each one a delight.

Yeah, yeah…leave it to me to compare my philosophy of life to food, but it’s something to consider, right?  What if we all focused on using our proverbial toothpicks to find the perfect, juicy olive. Attaining our ideal experiences may not be that hard. Great experiences might be had by hunting around for the exact elements that will get you there.