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Postcard from Abroad

Church in Old Town Nice, France

This is an excerpt from the long and winding letter we sent our families after our trip to Nice, France, and Camogli, Italy. This is not a travel guide—it is a straightforward account of our trip.

Day 1

On Sunday, we flew from New York to Reykjavik, Iceland for our first layover. We’ve had good experiences with Iceland Air before—the economy seats are nice and spacious, and on red eye flights they even give economy class pillows, blankets, and TVs—but unfortunately this time our first flight arrived about a half an hour late, causing us to miss our layover.
At the Reykjavik airport, we learned we had two options: stay in Iceland for a night and get a direct flight to Paris the next day, or fly out today via Copenhagen. We opted to take the extra flight that day so we wouldn’t miss out on the brief stop we had planned for Paris. We landed in Paris around 7 or 8, a good ten hours later than our original plan. In keeping with tradition from our first trip to Paris, we were so tired we opted to eat at a familiar American restaurant (ahem, Five Guys).

Day 2

The next day we woke up ready to explore Paris by bike (they have a similar bikeshare system to those in DC and New York). Unfortunately, not long after we started out, I accidentally clipped a curb and tumbled over on the bike. I got a little banged up and was feeling moody about my fall. I was the height of Paris fashion when entering Holybelly with a slightly bloody foot.
This is a good time to say that David and I have both taken multiple years of French classes, and we are still surprised by how little that has prepared us to communicate in this language. We’re pretty good at reading signs and putting together context clues, and we try to be respectful enough to order in French even if it comes out sounding unintelligible, but usually we barely get past introductions before we are hopelessly confused. The French locals were mostly patient with us and seemed to appreciate (i.e. giggle at) our Americanized “Bon-jeur” and “Mare-ci,” but they quickly switched the conversation into English. It is very humbling to realize your waiter is more fluent in multiple languages than you will ever be.
Later that afternoon, we walked to Gare du Nord and boarded the TGV—France’s high speed train. I had convinced us to take economy class, which turned out not to have power outlets (oops), but we did have incredible wi-fi and comfortable seats for the whole ride. I think at our max we were going about 130 miles an hour. David and I have both said this was one of our favorite parts of the trip—watching the French countrysides roll by and eventually turn to beaches. It was about a 6 hour trip, but it flew by. We took turns napping, reading, and watching Netflix.
That evening we arrived at our apartment in Nice. We like staying at AirBnBs because we find it brings us a little closer to the “local” experience and we can often ask our neighbors questions. This AirBnB was on the third floor of an apartment building, and the host left us a nice bottle of rose wine to welcome us.

Days 3-5: Nice

We were staying in what is considered “old town,” an area which has maintained the style of the city’s early days. It’s definitely the tourist part of the city, but David and I were surprised by how charming we found it. The “old town” area is mostly made up of winding pathways—to call them streets would be too generous—the kind of you see in movies and literature.
Winding streets of Nice, France
Nice, you beautiful son of a bitch
Nice Flowers
One of my favorite things about Europe is that because most spaces are small (including fridges and cabinet spaces), the locals often only get enough food for a day or two, so the things they tend to eat are usually picked up fairly fresh from the market. The old town area is full of tiny shops that locals will frequent—the boulangerie (bakery) for their daily pain(bread), the fromager (cheese shop) for their cheese, etc.— as well as a robust daily farmer’s market. We had a bit of a scare on our first day when a cannon suddenly went off at noon–turns out that is the signal to the vendors at the farmers market to start marking down prices to get rid of their wares! Usually most shops and stores and businesses close between noon and 2 PM every day. As a tourist, this is incredibly annoying, but for locals it is their time to run errands, or have a family-style lunch with their co-workers, or take a siesta.
Nicoise salad in Nice
Petit Dejeuner at Marionette
Most of our food experiences in Nice were enjoyable, but we did have a couple that will stay in our memory.
  • On our first day, we found a coffee shop (Cafe des Indians) that would be our go-to spot for the rest of our time there, and we would often stop in, get our noisette (machiatto) for me and glacé frappe (iced coffee) for David (PS: ice is scarce in Europe–they don’t naturally put it in drinks, which was a win for me and an annoyance for David).
  • In France especially you will see prix fix (fixed price) menus. For example, a restaurant may offer only one petit dejeuner (breakfast) option: for 6 euro you get coffee, juice, and a pastry. You can very which kind of pastry you get, but that menu is the only option you have if you want to eat there. There were some tourist spots that catered more to American tastes, and for 15 euro your petit dejeuner fixed price menu might include eggs or sausage. We ended up finding this lovely little spot called Marionette that served the best petit dejeuner we found—for 10 euros we got pancakes with fresh mixed berry jam, coffee, freshly (VERY FRESHLY) squeezed orange juice, and yogurt with granola and honey.
  • Finally, on our last night in Nice we stumbled on Peixes (“fish” in Portuguese), an incredible, incredible seafood restaurant. We shared oysters and ceviche (raw fish in citrus juices) and a delicious almond cake.
  • Wine is relatively cheap in Nice, but to be honest, we couldn’t keep up and didn’t try to. We saw people drinking at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but usually we would have a single glass with dinner.
  • Gelato was delicious and plentiful in Nice.
Although Nice is known for its beaches, this is not where David and I spent most of our time. The beaches, while beautiful, are rocky—there is actually no sand! The water was beautiful and clear blue, but surprisingly chilly too. We would just walk to the beach for a quick view in the morning, and then walk and sit on the rocks at the beach after dinner.
Beaches along Nice, France
One night we saw a mysterious light lurking just below the surface of the water near the shore. Soon we realized it was someone swimming at night with a headlamp and a snorkle. We thought this was a pretty cool hobby until the swimmer rose out of the water—with a spear! It turns out the swimmer was spear fishing and had caught a number of fish that he placed in a belt around his waist. This was probably one of the coolest things we stumbled on during our trip.
Mercantour National Forest
On our next to last day in Nice, David went to pick up our rental car. Being Americans who don’t drive a stick shift, they stuck us with a mammoth luxury station wagon that we did not want (everyone in Europe drives small cars–we had no idea where we were going to park this beast). We used the car to travel to Mercantour National Park for what we thought would be a lovely little hike, but turned out to be a terrifying (for Ashley) assent up winding mountain roads to THE FRENCH ALPS. That’s all we’re going to say about this part of the trip since Ashley needed to be heavily sedated afterwards (kidding…but also not).

Days 6-8

We left Nice by car and headed (again, along winding mountain roads) to Camogli, a small port town outside Genoa, Italy and about 3 hours away from Nice. David had a chance to test out the French/Italian highway system known as the Autostrad and we did pass by the collapsed bridge in Genoa which was eerie to see.
View from Camogli Italy
We eventually made our way to our next AirBnB, which was a tiny house studio attached to a larger home. It was really fun to see what it would be like to live in a tiny house and we found that we liked it quite a lot. But what made this location really special was the outdoor space and THE VIEW—we could see the ocean and the entire hillside community. The only downside was the large, heavy sliding doors which were difficult to open and close; David actually ended up smashing his finger trying to close a door one night (ouch).
Most European places we’ve stayed have a washer, but no dryer, so people hang their clothes out to dry from windows or from lines in their yard. We washed our clothes in the tiny Italian washer and then David jiggered a homemade clothes line for us to use during our stay. The clothes are stiff and wrinkly once their dry, and we both agreed a dryer was about the only American appliance we missed.
Camogli cat

I am very allergic to cats, and we learned this one usually “hang out inside” our AirBnB. Turns out he was very amenable to “hanging out” in the chairs on the porch instead, so we’re cool.

Camogli is another port town (but smaller and less touristy) on a hill so we knew we wanted to find our way to the water. Running through the middle of town is a 1 mile-long winding staircase that goes along behind the houses and homes to the center square. Our first day there, we walked from our AirBnB to the town square and took a ferry boat to a nearby town called San Fruttuso. It was incredible to be out on the Mediterranean and look back to see the colorful town from on the water.
Another day, we walked down to the waterfront and rented beach chairs for a few hours. We sat in the brilliant sun and tested out the warm clear blue water. We couldn’t help but be in awe of the way the water had smoothed out the rocks along the shore and the sounds it made as it pulled the rocks back out with each wave. No matter what we do, we’ll never be able to describe how beautiful the water and the shores are along the Mediterranean.
Port of Camogli, Italy
Overall, our food experiences in Camogli were less memorable. We did find one incredible coffee shop that we went back to visit three times. We also had a chance to sample a good piece of Camogli focaccia bread and we grabbed homemade pasta sauce to use over pasta we made at the apartment.
We did learn one lesson: We had failed to learn any conversational Italian before coming, and being more rural than Nice, most of the locals were not multi-lingual. A lot of experiences involved pointing at words, or pulling out our phones and getting translations, and I don’t think that made us very likable to people.
My best memories of Camogli will be its remoteness. Because we didn’t feel we could easily go explore other towns, we kind of stayed put and relaxed a little. We read books, we slept in, we put our feet up and watched the sunsets and sunrises from our little porch. It was incredibly relaxing.

Day 9-10 

On our last day in Camogli, we woke up early in the morning to drive back to Nice and drop off the car. Then we boarding the TGV for Paris. We landed at the Gare du Nord and then on to our hotel.

Notre Dame

Our second Paris hotel ended up being near Notre Dame, somewhere we had been before, but we decided to take an evening stroll there with fresh eyes and found we really loved everything about that part of Paris. We revisited the places we had stayed on our last visit in Le Maris and while it was fun to reminisce, we couldn’t believe how different Paris felt to us just six years later at this different stage of our life.
The next morning we woke up early and boarded our flight back to the US.
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Good Tape

The week we moved to New York, I found out I had been invited to participate in a podcast development program sponsored by the City of New York. There were hundreds of applicants for just 20 slots, so I felt rather humbled to be included.

By the end of the class, I should (in theory) be able to put together a basic audio story that I have conceived, recorded, edited, and otherwise produced on my own. The work is fast-paced—just two weeks in and I’ve completed my first assignment and am in the middle of editing and recording the second.

The class has stretched me in the best possible ways. The thing I always knew I was good at—using words to tell stories—has much higher stakes in this format. For one thing, I have to get someone else to say the words I want to use, then as I twist and shape the words in editing, I have to ask myself if I’m remaining true to their intentions when they said them. When I hear a story now, I just hear the compounded parts of the effort: The music sweeping in at just the right time. The decision to cut here instead of there. The minute instances when I can hear a rough edit. The entrance of the narrator to move the story along.

Growing up, I wanted desperately to be a journalist—Diane Sawyer. Barbara Walters. Connie Chung. Christiane Amanpour.—and yet I remember the slow realization during freshman year of college that it would not be my path in life. After all, unpaid internships presented an impossible hurdle to a poor kid from the south.

There were a lot of reasons I might not have succeeded as a journalist anyway. Again, as a woman from the south, I was taught to be deferential—to move and shift in such a way as to never be a burden to anyone; politeness to the point of non-existence. Combined with my deep reverence for the craft, I struggled with insecurities about “doing it right,” of putting anyone out with my questions, of bothering people who so clearly didn’t want to be bothered. These are not, I suspect, fears that Christiane Amanpour takes into her interviews with world leaders.

A few months ago, I had a chance to interview people I respect and admire. People who make audio for a living, and very good, smart audio at that. I mapped out my questions so that I would not stumble over myself. I learned how to use my phone to record their answers so there were would be no missteps of lost audio. Even with all of my preparation, I can hear the fear in my voice standing next to them. I cannot be indifferent. I cannot ignore their power in the world, or their power over me. It’s a reflex to enthusiastically celebrate things I love.

And so now I am here again, nudged to reach out to the world and ask it questions. It is a delightfully terrifying challenge. The first week we were tasked with creating an “audio postcard,” a snippet of a scene. On my way home from class, I pulled out my recorder and captured the sounds of the 1 train—the bing/bong of the closing door, the static-filled voice over the loudspeaker—and then, the voice of a busker.

At first, I just record him from the other side of the train, and then as he’s about to get off, I ask him if he’ll stay on another minute so I can ask him questions, and he does. He sings his song again for me, closer to my recorder this time. And then the next stop comes and he hops off.

I go home and I listen to what I captured. The sound is not very good, but his laugh is magical. I edit and tweak and walk away a hundred times before I finally say, this has to be done now.

This week the assignment is more challenging. We’re to go out on the street (any street) and ask questions, and from that build a story. My introversion is being tested. And at 33, I no longer look like the “student” I’m proposing to be when I ask someone for a moment of their time.

I encounter language barriers with my neighbors—real or created—and so I ask Google to help me translate.

“Hola, ¿puedo hacerte una pregunta?”

“¿Quién está ganando?”

“¿Qué te gusta de nuestro vecindario?”

They mostly giggle at me, which, incidentally, makes for good tape too.

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We Are Surely in the Thick of It

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a week since I wrote this, and in that time the world feels ever darker. I wish I was one of those writers who could inspire you to see beyond this moment and imagine a brighter future, but like many of you, I am thoroughly in the thick of it, looking for answers myself.

As this project from The Wall Street Journal visualizes, my Facebook and Twitter feed is filled with friends who pour their hearts out over these latest injustices, and while I am grateful for their company, the opposition that must surely exist is silent, at least in my timelines. I cannot determine if this is because they realize their mistake and are shamed, or if the algorithm only shows me want I want to see. I’m not sure it matters, truthfully, because if there are people who choose to remain steadfast in their politics regardless of what is moral and good, I do not think I want to know them anymore.

Before I moved here, like most people I did not realize that the people who live and work in Washington, DC actually have no representation in Congress. When you want to express outrage, you call your Senator or Representative; despite living 2 miles from the White House, I have no one to call, no one to own my outrage on my behalf. Thankfully, we are a city of people uninterested in remaining silent. While we work on getting representation, here are some ways we’re calling bullshit. Here’s what you can do to help.

Friends, I urge to take care of yourself. This is a long battle and we can not afford to grow weary or complacent. I’m making biscuits. Pretty terrible ones, if I’m being honest. Sometimes they’re flat and mostly they lack flavor, but I’m going to keep working at it, because it’s something I can put my energies into for right now. Find something that is yours and dive into when you need a break.

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In 2016, We Don’t Deserve Frank

I embraced Tootie’s ugly cry today.

I stood in line to pick up my dry cleaning as Frank Sinatra’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” pushed its way out of a radio on the back counter. Even from its tinny speakers, his croon seized me and I felt the tears swell up. I paid for my clothes and hurried outside lest they see me go into full out cry.

2016 has been a shit year, friends.

In 2016, the year of our lord, we don’t deserve Frank, and we definitely don’t deserve Judy.

I spent the past week trying to return to routines that felt strangely unnatural. I cleaned. I podcast. I watched hours of Great British Bake Off until my eyes turned glassy. And 15 seconds of Frank undid it all.

Because next year all of our troubles won’t be out of sight, friends. They are just beginning, and that is a hard truth to accept.

I love institutions. I love believing in democracy, in checks and balances. I love the idea of collective action. I damn near lose it when everyone stops to sing the national anthem at ball games. But somehow it feels like our system failed this time and that’s why I can’t believe we are here. We are supposed to be in a different place. We’re not supposed to still be debating whether women deserve equal rights, whether we should open our doors to those seeking refuge. We are supposed to be forging a path against climate change. We are supposed to be feeding millions of poor and curing diseases. We are supposed to be inventing great things we haven’t even imagined yet.

Instead, white supremacists are yelling “Hail Trump” in a federal building.

So for now, we have to be vigilant and we have to be persistent and we have to be loud because I’m not ready to give up on that future I imagined. We have to find the places where we’re going to keep pushing forward.

2016 was a shit year, friends, but next year we have a chance to begin better.

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Things I Loved in 2015

Holiday Fireplace 2015

I’m coming to you from a cabin in the deepest part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is no cell signal for 30 miles, and a shaky wi-fi signal at best. I’m settled in by the fire with a dog at my feet, and it feels like a pretty nice way to close out the year.

What brought me happiness this year? David, travels, meals with friends, and everything on the list below. I hope it brings you happiness too.

Broad City

Oh, friends. Without a doubt, Broad City is one of my very favorite things about this year. Irreverent. Smart. Feminist. Start with the deep cuts—the original YouTube series—and then move on to the more polished Comedy Central episodes. Yas kween!

Podcasts

I’ve loved and lost a lot of podcasts this year. Long time standbys like RadioLab and Planet Money were replaced with Reply All, Here Be Monsters and Imaginary Worlds. As the podcast community continues to evolve, it can be tough to cut through the noise. Thanks to sites like The Timbre and NPR’s Earbud.fm, I was able to build playlists based on the kinds of stories I want to hear, including Fresh Air, Note to Self and HumaNature.

Amy Schumer

I thought Trainwreck was hilarious, but more than that, Amy Schumer is unapologetically feminist and flawed. I can only love her.

Public Art

How many times have you been moved to tears by public art? I can count at least three times this year alone. There is something so vulnerable about painting your mural, or blasting your horn, in such a public way. In November, David and I stumbled upon a couple of members of the Hot Gumbo Brass Band playing on a street corner in Norfolk. For 10 minutes or more I was totally transfixed to be so close to live music, to feel the complete abandon with which they played. I opened my purse and gave them all of my monies.

Elena Ferrante

In December, I decided to be really honest with the members of my book club: I had found it to be a rather miserable year of reading. I started each book, intent on expanding my literary horizons, only to despise title after title. After giving up early in the book, I would then lament the remainder of the month, abstaining from other pleasurable reads as penance. After such a careful and ambitious selection process, it turned out that I only liked a single book in our entire list—my own contribution—Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. I liked it so much I’ve settled into reading the entire Neapolitan series, beginning with My Brilliant Friend.

Pasta

Remember that time we all decided not to eat pasta anymore? Well, in 2015, I remembered why we fucking eat pasta. Give me Bar Primi, Red Hen and 25 cent packs of ramen all. day. long.

Linguine for lunch @barprimi. A photo posted by Bar Primi (@barprimi) on

Vermont

From the train ride up, to the long-ass bike ride out into the middle of a lake, Vermont is a lovely place to visit.

One Tab

It would not unfair to say my stronghold on the Internet relies on this one little Chrome extension. Download this sweet tool and let it forever keep your world in check.

Love

“They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. It is so ordered.”

Is there anything that matter more this year? The answer is no.

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Why Thanksgiving is a Great Time to Get Rid of Stuff

Kitchen Pantry

I know not a few hoarders of kitchen things. These folks have kept every dish they’ve ever owned, no matter how chipped or abused. Every burned pan, even single-use object, every obscure ingredient remnant.* They move these items from home-to-home, even if they rarely see the light-of-day at the back of a forlorn cabinet.

These people give me heartburn.

Thanksgiving is actually a great opportunity to reassess your kitchen. After all, if you haven’t used a tool or a tray at Thanksgiving—the most epic day of all meal-making—is it really needed? Or in such a quantity? Maybe it’s even time to upgrade the version you have?

This year, I hosted a Friendsgiving event (a veritable practice-run for the big day), and as I carefully executed the meal, I gave myself time to notice which objects became invaluable and which were never touched.

Ditch Single Use Objects

Like Alton Brown, I despise single-use tools. Ice cream makers, pasta makers, those weird corn-cob things owned by people who never eat corn on the cob. I will also put apple corers, chopsticks and nutcrackers in this category.

Take a look around your kitchen and see what kind of single-use tchotchkes are cluttering your space. You can probably find at least a few hidden offenders in your pan collection: unless you make muffins, donuts, or other irregularly shaped food items, time to ditch the baking tins.

Eliminate Items That No Longer Match Your Lifestyle

When I became mostly vegetarian, regular use of my slow cooker ground to a halt. My rice cooker, blender and bread maker? I realized I wasn’t using them very much either. On to Craig’s List they went. Revisit your kitchen through the lens of food prep on an average Thursday night—I doubt those super fancy napkins rings or margarita glasses play a part in it.

And while you’re at it, give your food cabinets this same once over. Rid yourself of rare ingredients that you’ll never use again (er…candied ginger) or that will have expired by your next use anyway (ahem, yeast). I once bought bags of quinoa only to learn I hate quinoa. I’ve off-loaded it to my quinoa-loving friends, making more room for things that really matter…like chocolate.

Get Serious About Extraneous Items

When I think of the number of ketchup and soy packets I cleaned out of our fridge, I’m a little ashamed. We stockpile that shit from takeaway bags like we don’t have full containers of both already in our fridge. Now is the time to pour the remnants of old products into new ones (or toss them entirely).

When I looked in our silverware drawer, I noticed a random assortment of spoons, knives and forks—and absolutely no idea how they got there. We cleared out all but our original set. We also checked plates, bowls and glasses for chips or breaks—no use waiting until they shatter in the dishwasher.

It’s also a good idea to take a closer look at the total number of items you are keeping. We had 50 different leftover containers for just 2 people. We threw away our hodgepodge of containers and invested in one set of matching Rubbermaid pieces designed to fit together nicely in our drawers.

Face the Scourge of Emotional Baggage in the Kitchen

In the South, it’s very common for mothers to bestow their daughters with a “hope chest” of things she will use when starting her own home. As the recipient of a rather robust hope chest from my own mother, I entered my first apartment completely prepared to make all of my favorite meals (thanks, mom!). Over time, however, these well-loved objects have become either outdated or obsolete. Of all the things in my kitchen, these are the hardest to let go. Thanks for the weird emotional attachment to objects, Disney.

It might seem cheesy, but Marie Kondo suggests that you thank these items for their service before they leave your kitchen. This simple act has helped me to find greater appreciation for the items that remain.

And finally…

As your kitchen empties out, you’ll be tempted to restock it with new things. Don’t. Give yourself and your appliances a little breathing room—after all, Christmas is just around the corner.

 

**I once cleaned out my mom’s fridge and found ingredients that were more than 10 years old. shudder

 

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A Seat on the Train

When we decided to travel to Vermont by train, I looked forward to the trip with atypical giddiness. I imagined 12 hours of uninterrupted writing, reading, sleeping.

It was that and not. It was that and more.

The first leg of the trip—12 hours from Union Station in Washington, DC, to a tiny train stop in Essex Junction, Vermont—was dedicated to work. I spent the hours hunched over my laptop, desperately swearing at the unreliable wi-fi, cajoling it to please…just…work. As the hours ticked by, I’d wearily look over at David, consumed in his computer game. Every few hours I’d take a bathroom break—long enough to look up and realized we were passing over some bridge, crossing through some unknown town—but otherwise, I was decidedly focused.

I promised that at 5 p.m.—9 hours into the trip at that point—I’d turn off the work email, and settle into the quiet rumble of the car (it was 7 p.m. before I put the laptop away). By then, I was tired, dirty and dehydrated. I turned on a favorite movie on the iPad, determined to simply tune out. Head resting against the window, I found myself absorbed in the passing landscape—I watched the sharp blue skies and downy clouds of New Hampshire and Vermont shift into evening. Every moment my window seemed to shapeshift into another verdant mountain, another quiet pond. It was breathtaking.

Outside me, the world of the train had carried on. We quickly learned the Vermonter is a short train—just five cars. There was no quiet car–the greatest tragedy of our journey. David and I could have sat in near total silence for the entire 12 hours, still completely at ease in our mutual company.

The funny thing about trains is how much they are unlike cars. Cars require the constant attention of its occupants, constant notice of its neighboring vehicle. A driver can easily find themselves distracted by all the things to do in a car: steer the wheel, change the radio station, plug in a phone, reach to the glove compartment, navigate. On the train, these kinds of mechanical distractions are removed—which in theory was our reason for taking the train at all. But for others, these absence of these familiar distractions only served to help them identify new routines to pass the time.

I think it’s fair to say that David and I were in a constant mode of “do no harm.” As we entered the train, we carefully tucked our belongs into our seats, making ourselves as small as possible to cause initiate no trouble to our fellow passengers. We dutifully threw away our garbage, left the bathrooms clean, kept our noise to minimum. What surprised me most about the train was how often this rule was ignored by others.

On the train, I found myself wholly distracted by:

  • Loud phone calls—both full and open business meetings, personal calls to long-lost friends, the placing of orders.
  • Kissing — full on sucking noises from my backseat neighbors.
  • Screaming kids — running up and down aisles, banging on bathroom doors, throwing trash and Cheerios all over carpets.
  • Music — from playlists without headphones, to loud humming, to cell phone jingles.

No amount of earplugs or headphones could contain the masses.

But oh, the people watching.

My train neighbors were of every race, and age, and locality. I watched an elderly woman, no doubt on her way home, carefully deposited at a train station by a loving family member. I saw whole gaggles of women arrive on the train with shopping bags and suitcases, likely on their way to some weekend getaway. I marveled at the parents with the fortitude to bring their children on the long ride, to read to them the same books over and over, to not weary of being Elmo or Batman for the fifth time. Students heading back to college. Single women using the train to take them to some new adventure. Business men and women.

Unsurprisingly, there are gluts of riders who board and exit at stations like DC, New York and Philadelphia, but these longer layovers often allowed us a welcome chance to exit the train and breathe station air for a few short moments.

The train conductors were an entirely other matter. Sometimes, friendly, sometimes masters of their domain, I watched them turn over at regular intervals. I would guess that each 12-hour ride saw no fewer than 5 different conductors. At the origin of our return trip, one conductor had pushed the riders into two cars by locking the three ahead. His rationale was fair: families and couples had far fewer chances of finding seats together the further the train traveled and he wanted to give them a fighting change. Another conductor asked us to pack up and make our way to the doors more than 20 minutes before we were scheduled to arrive at our final destination.

I saw people who reminded me of my own small town family. We passed town after working class town. Gas stations and grocery stories that looked local and worn. We passed one area of Vermont where people came out to their front porches to wave at the train—this train that must surely pass through their windows with an absurd regularity. In one small town, we watched kids and parents gathering in a town square to stare and marvel at the passing locomotive.

I wish I’d given myself more time to dream on the train. My baser tendencies kicked in and I pulled my Twitter feed ceaselessly. I played podcast after podcast determined to drown out my vicious seat-mates. I started a new, albeit absorbing novel. I let the train carry me to and from home without much thought to its final destination.

Even so, I emerged content with how I had spent my time. For 24 hours I was the master of a very tiny domain—one the size of a a perfectly comfortable seat.

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Musical Re-Education


My earliest memory of music was my older brother teaching me Frère Jacques. He was in high school or middle school and because he had the voice of angel (and also a great love of Dolly Parton, Bette Middler and Amy Grant, which, should have clued us all in to a much later reveal), he had joined the choir.

As he moved through lovely renditions of “Do Re Mi,” he would try to teach me what it meant to sing on-key. To sing from the diaphragm. To sing not squawk, for god’s sake. But nothing doing—I did not possess a musical talent. I made dogs whimper at my sounds.

I took this knowledge in stride, and beyond soothing my fractious teenage years with boybands and mix tapes, I never really looked back at music. I didn’t join the band. I didn’t pick up any musical instruments. I don’t even watch The Grammy’s.

Lately though, I’ve developed an appreciation for stories about music and how it is made. Not Vh1 Behind the Music, exactly, but just how does music get created, promoted, popularized.

And instead of relying on the perfect algorithms of Spotify, Pandora and the radio, I’m asking people to share their music with me.

It’s all making for a pretty re-education in music.

And my brother? Well, let’s just say he found a way to use his talents too, and I couldn’t be more proud.

More of the Same

I am obsessed with two kinds of music: covers and acoustic covers. Thanks Facebook ticker for sending me to the BBC Radio 1 YouTube channel where I can watch pop stars cover the hits of other pop stars all day long.

Check out Song Exploder, a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.  Start with Episode 1 – The Postal Service and remind yourself why The District Sleeps Alone Tonight is a hell of a record.

My colleague introduced me to Brown Bird and its been heavy on my rotation. Listen to this indelible set and then cry because it’s all over forever.

The guys at Pitch teach you all about The Clearmountain Pause and explain why a few seconds of silence can be an underestimated act of musical production.

And of course I’ve got you covered with this most excellent 70’s playlist.

Be easy, friends.

 

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What I'm Doing

Part 2: For Your Ears Only

Once, I reached Podcast Zero. I had listened to every single episode of the podcasts in my queue. Of course, I have no way of knowing how large my podcast queue is relative to others’. At the time of this post, I have 13 podcast subscriptions.

My interests in certain podcasts have waxed and waned over time—Studio 360, one of my early mainstays, dropped off the list a few years ago; Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing got cut when some thing he said pissed me off (and later picked back up for an Ira Glass episode); TL;DR was replaced by Reply All. There are a few podcasts that I enjoy when I catch them on the radio, but feel no need to hear with any particular regularity. I count Car Talk, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and Prairie Home Companion among these. But there are those that have been there consistently since the first day I found them: This American Life, The Moth, 99% Invisible, RadioLab.

In the past year, I’ve listened to hours of podcasts. I would venture to guess that podcasting rivals my hours spent watching TV. In this era, that’s saying something.

My podcast preferences tend to be those with a consistent narrative structure; I like knowing what to expect. There are plenty of wonderful shows with a much looser, conversational style and these can be particularly interesting when they feature an expert or guest you favor. Many podcasts treat episodes as discrete stories that may not connect thematically to the following week, but there are growing number of podcasts that rely on you as a serialized listener: Welcome to the Nightvale, Startup and Serial are among them.

Thanks to the success of Serial, there have been many rounds of other podcast nerds sharing their favorites—Buzzfeed, Slate, The Atlantic, Medium, Esquire, The Guardian— and I’m tossing my hat into the arena here as a bit of a podcast connoisseur. If you’re just beginning to find podcasts, you can’t go wrong by starting with these episodes.

Once you’re done you’ll want to run to the nearest computer and make an immediate donation to public radio for producing such epic storytelling. Trust me on this.

Somewhere in the Arabian Sea

This American Life

Life aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier that was stationed in the Arabian Sea and supported bombing missions over Afghanistan. Only a few dozen people on board actually fly jets. It takes the rest of the crew — over 5,000 people — to keep them in the air.This American Life producers visited the Stennis in 2002, about six weeks into its deployment. The hour is devoted to this one story.

Song Exploder

99% Invisible

The architecture behind a piece of music can be much more involved than meets the ear, and this is what inspired Hrishikesh Hirway to start a podcast called Song Exploder, where musicians “take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.” Be sure to also check this killer Song Exploder episode on The Postal Service’s “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” 

The Bitter End

RadioLab

We turn to doctors to save our lives — to heal us, repair us, and keep us healthy. But when it comes to the critical question of what to do when death is at hand, there seems to be a gap between what we want doctors to do for us, and what doctors want done for themselves.

How to Divide an Imaginary Pie

Startup

[Note: This is one of the few podcasts that is best listened to in order, but trust me, the 2 episodes before this are well worth it.] Before Alex and Matt can lock in their partnership, they need to discuss equity: how much of the company each of them will own.  Alex starts by suggesting that Matt get 10%.  Matt thinks 45% is fair.  Day one of their negotiation ends without agreement.

Patient Zero

RadioLab

The greatest mysteries have a shadowy figure at the center—someone who sets things in motion and holds the key to how the story unfolds. In epidemiology, this central character is known as Patient Zero—the case at the heart of an outbreak.

Rest Stop

This American Life

Nine radio producers. Two days. One rest stop on the New York State Thruway. In this show, we’ll bring you stories of people who are just passing through, and people who are at the rest stop every day—working. One of them has worked there since 1969. A bunch of others came from Asia and eastern Europe to pour coffee for travelers.

Title TK 

99% Invisible 

Now, we’ve all come up with names before—for pets, or children, or bands, or blogs. But when it comes to designing a name for a business or a product,  there are a number of additional factors to consider. In this daily barrage, only the names that are most interesting and most pleasant on the tongue can survive in your memory.

Website for Sale

Reply All

We enter the mysterious, Byzantine underworld of domain sales, where people make money speculating on the website naming market. A few years ago, the owners of the popular journalism website longform.org blundered into this world when they innocently tried to procure longform.com.

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Part 1: That Time I Was Cool Before Everyone Else

Despite being a regular early adopter, I still can’t believe how far ahead I was of podcasts becoming a thing. I heard my first episode of This American Life while driving along I-81 in 2006. Every station along the rural mountainside was a fuzzy mess, but there was Ira Glass’s professorial voice soothing my fractured heart with each mile. In perhaps a very backwards way, podcasts are how I first discovered the reach of public radio too.

David and I have spent the past two weeks debating whether Serial’s success is based on the medium or the story–I say both. Podcasts are such a compelling format because, unlike TV, they enable you to continue other tasks without being beholden to the sofa. Much of our collective time in cars is spent listening to podcasts. David streams Dave Ramsey and The Vergecast while washing the dishes. I let the dulcet tones of Roman Mars and Jad Abumrad take me away while I fold the laundry. We have almost unnatural relationships with people we hardly know. We reference them like best friends: “You know, Dave mentioned that we really should get rid of our credit cards and use cash instead.”

No Women, Mo’ Problems

I recently realized that before Serial I didn’t have a single podcast in my queue hosted by a woman. I knew plenty of women helped produce my favorite podcasts—Sarah Koenig of This American Life, and Zoe Chace and Stacey Vanek-Smith of Planet Money being three of them–but I found myself unsubscribing from other lady-led podcasts because they often seemed to lack the narrative structure that I find to be the holy grail of audio storytelling.

That’s all changing. Not only is Sarah Koenig and her team proving to be rockstars, new podcasts like Criminal, hosted by Phoebe Judge, will be opening all kinds of doors for other voices to emerge. This year I joined my first Kickstarter campaign to bring at least two new podcasts led by women to Radiotopia.

Podcasting Thought-Pieces

So we’re here at this moment when podcasting is certainly part of a zeitgeist. I hope that it means many more organizations are giving their content folks an opportunity to test how they might contribute to this medium.

I’m happy to say I’m not the only one thinking about the future of podcasts; in fact, there are a great many others discussing why podcasting might just be the next great thing. I’ve pulled a selection below, but feel free to add others in the comments.

And if you’ve never listened to a podcast before, let Ira and his friend tell you how easy it is to get started.

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