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Posts tagged ‘pen pals’

the ambassador of pisco :)

Donald Trump might hate Latinos but I love them.  The love affair started in Mexico.  My grandmother used to buy me Seventeen magazine.  I was probably eleven years old when it started but a precocious old soul.  One issue changed my life.

Back when the internet was only used by egghead scientists, you had to write letters to communicate with people in distant places.  My parents love living in small towns and I had been dragged to a rural farming community by my father, uprooting me from the surprisingly cosmopolitan small town in which I had started school.

These weren’t my people and I spent most of my time studying and plotting my escape as soon as my secondary education was complete.  I devoured books and loved the encyclopedia so, when I read in Seventeen, about the concept of pen pals, I felt as though a fairy godmother had just handed me a way to survive my teenage years in the wilderness (figurative AND literal :))

Most of the options cited in the article cost money and required international postal coupons so I opted to write to the United States Committee for UNICEF.  They collected information from any children who wrote to them and would send you a copy of the list for free.  It was a single page.  I still have it and see that they misspelled both my first name AND my last name.  I’ve become used to it… but what was exciting was that there were 20 other kids from nine different countries who wanted to explore the world via air mail.  They also sent suggestions on how to get started, what to write about and how to be courteous to other cultures.  There was a third sheet that listed all sorts of other pen pal agencies, which proved to be one of the most important pieces of paper of my teenage years.

First, though, I needed to take action and select one person from the list as the recipient of my very first missive.  A lot of the names were American.  Some were from states that seemed exotic to me at the time but a culture with which I was very familiar.  I wanted exotic so I chose Gloria from Mexico.  One of the best decisions I ever made!

I finally found a teenager I could relate to.  We wrote in both English and French to practice and I bought a book to teach myself Spanish and she sent me back corrections to my entertaining attempts at her native language.  We wrote each other regularly for over ten years.  She constantly invited me to visit her in Mexico but I couldn’t afford it.  Tragically, as I finally managed to get to the stage in my career where I could have financed the trip, she died in a car accident.  I learned this because we were both so obsessed with writing to foreigners that we had forged an international group of people who were all connected even though none of us had met.  My friend Despina (who started as another youthful pen pal) did actually meet Gloria and she was the one to tell me of the tragic accident.  To see Mexico City through her eyes had always been one of my dreams.

Someday I will go but I know it will make me sad.  Instead I have channelled the love I had for my very first Latino into exploring other countries where her native tongue is spoken.  It has just reinforced the generous spirit that I saw in her letters.

People are friendly, open and fun.  If you bring those qualities to the table, too, you will be making friends without even learning Spanish.  I DO want to eventually learn Spanish as I am sure I will have an even better time.  This time I had to just appreciate the people who were able to speak my lingo.  One of the most memorable was Sebastian.

pisco with a flourish :)

pisco with a flourish 🙂

I learned about pisco in Peru, where they had insisted Chile was copying them and Peruvian pisco was superior.  The history is not absolutely clear, especially as present day Peru and Chile once had totally different borders, but it seems likely that Peru invented both pisco and the pisco sour.  Sebastian convinced me, however, of the present day superiority of Chilean pisco.

If you would like to judge for yourself, you should head to the Lastarria district in Santiago de Chile and look for Chipe Libre – Républica Independiente del Pisco It’s a great name – what lured me 😉  Then I luckily sat in Sebastian’s section at the bar.  He spoke English quite well and I told him about my Peruvian pisco experiences and he took it upon himself to convert me 🙂

If you enjoy pisco, it is a heavenly place.  (They also have excellent food).  I can’t remember exactly how many varieties of pisco they have but well over fifty – and there are several different pisco flights.  That is where I started.  Since I was in Santiago for several days and it was really close to my hotel, like some German tourists before me, I started showing up most days to try a different flight.

showing off my pisco knowledge :)

showing off my pisco knowledge 🙂

What is lovely is that they write the name of the pisco on a paper circle that is wrapped around the glass so

the view at the end of the world

the view at the end of the world

you can just collect the ones you like and take them with you for the rest of your Chilean tour.  That’s what I did.  I impressed a few bartenders with my newly acquired knowledge of Chilean pisco.  My second most memorable pisco experience was in Puntas Arenas where I discovered the Sky Bar at the Dreams Hotel.  Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great the night I went but it was still spectacular.  You have an overview of the Pacific Ocean without horizon at the end of the world.  You don’t have to drink pisco 😉

But – if you want to learn more about Chilean culture – check out Chipe Libre.  If you get lucky, you will

the ambassador of pisco :)

the ambassador of pisco 🙂

meet Sebastian.  He is passionate about pisco and has an encyclopedic knowledge.  He also apparently has good taste as we generally agreed on the best pisco in each flight 🙂  I told him he should be a pisco ambassador!  It’s become common in the world of whisk(e)y – some lucky soul who roams the world promoting the attributes of the distillery and its related wares.

Chile should really consider it.  My favourite pisco was Mistral Gran Nobel Elqui/Limari/Choapa.  Sadly, you need to go to Chile to buy it.  Perhaps, someday, Sebastian will change that 😉






the ghosts of New York past…

My recent trip to NYC was especially memorable as I spent time with three different friends, each one from a different decade of my life and each friendship established via totally different circumstances… but all of whom came together – without actually meeting! – back in 1996.

As I mentioned, in 1995 I decided to fly to NYC to meet up with my friend David who was working in Saudi Arabia at the time.  Only scientists knew how to use the internet back then (you actually needed to know things like DOS commands to use computers 🙂 so we arranged the trip via fax.

It was a roaring success so I went back the following year.  In July really cool people are in the Hamptons but I am never going to be cool so was happy just to be there in my cheap sweaty midtown hotel room.  My friend Sarah was working in DC at the time so came up for the weekend and we ran around in NYC imagining what it might be like to live there.

It was how I learned to love Negronis.  I figured it would be fun to play at being cool so I had read about a place called Pravda somewhere.  It was a bar in the emerging Nolita district of Manhattan too hip to actually have a sign so we had to wander around a bit and finally descend down a staircase and open a mysterious black door… but we found it.  And I suggested we order a Negroni since

bar ngorongoro crater lodge

bar ngorongoro crater lodge

said they were the hot drink of summer 1996.  Our cool factor may not have been really high but at least we were trying hard to not just be typical tourists…

And I really liked the Negroni!  In those days, I didn’t drink cocktails so was always stumped when there wasn’t a cocktail list.  So I started ordering a Negroni.  It took me years to remember what was in it.  It was purely accidental that I discovered it was one of those classic cocktails that gets you respect from the bartender.  Ordering a Negroni almost makes me seem cool 🙂


There have been lots of memorable Negronis over the years but it will be hard to top the one I taught the bartender how to make at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania.  The lodge is a bit much but it was my last night in Africa and it was so fancy I could dress up.  I had forgotten though that it would be pitch black when I left the main building to go back to my Versailles-like hut so I freaked out my Masai warrior escort gingerly picking my way along the path in heels.  But I told him I had the balance of an impala – and we made it there without him having to catch me in his arms.  The wood was warped so the door stuck.  His job was to make sure I got into my room so he had to open it – it took some effort!  It had all been a delightful way to end the night – and my Serengeti adventure – so I blew him a kiss.  He blew me one back.  It’s not every day you have a Masai warrior blowing you a kiss 😉


I haven’t met any Masai warriors in NYC but there has been some kissing there over the years…

Including that week back in 1996… Sarah went back to DC and I was supposed to spend the next Saturday doing a bar crawl on the Upper West Side with my friend Despina.  I had read about all these new bars on the upper West and I had been there before with friends so figured it was a safe neighborhood for us to wander in and maybe have a bit of adventure.  But she had a new job so had to work on Saturday night to meet her Monday deadline.

It was my last night in NYC and it seemed wrong to stay in my hotel room.  At that stage, I hadn’t done much wandering in NYC alone but the neighborhood seemed pretty easy and I figured I would just stay alert – and drink lots of cranberry juice in between cocktails.

It was how I discovered the pleasures of having dinner at the bar.  I bonded with each bartender so I knew they had my back if I needed it.  I chatted with random people who sat next to me.  I eavesdropped on conversations and got a much clearer sense for the culture of the place.  That was also how I met my Mr. Big 🙂

It was the last bar.  I was just having a final cocktail and thought I would likely head home before it got too late.  But a guy came in and sat next to me and we started talking.  He was a junior investment banker.  For the first few years, they work practically around the clock so he was finishing work and having a drink in a local bar before going home to bed.

What really bonded us was that he was Canadian.  It seemed like fate…  going on a random bar crawl alone on your last night in New York and then meeting a fellow Canadian on the Upper West Side far from other tourists just as you were both planning to go home… so we didn’t.  He wondered if I wanted to go to a club in SOHO.  That seemed much more fun than my hotel room and we would be in a taxi so I could just get out if I needed to…

In the end, my attempts at personal safety ended up being quite hilarious.  I thought I shouldn’t let him know where I lived since I didn’t know him very well so I got out of the taxi a couple of blocks before the hotel and walked by myself at 3am on the streets of New York.  At the time, I didn’t realize he had the taxi follow me to make sure I would get to my hotel safely.  And that’s how apparently flowers showed up at my hotel the next day – but I had already checked out.

And – despite evidence to the contrary – he didn’t think I was completely insane and a grand, bi-coastal romance blossomed.  I don’t date people unless I really like them so we have stayed friends and try to meet when I am in NYC to catch up on our lives.  It’s been really wonderful to watch him change over the years.  Even cocky junior investment bankers can mellow into caring dads 🙂  It’s a crazy business with a lot of questionable ethics but that chance night on the upper West has allowed me to see that not all investment bankers are evil 😉nyc 324

I have known Despina the longest.  Our friendship began as pen pals at age 15.  When I was a teenager, I felt closer to her than most of the people in my actual community.  We finally met in person in the early 90s.  She is an artist so our lives have run on very different paths but we both love food and art so we incorporate that into our joint adventures.

We likely know more about each other’s romantic adventures than anyone else in our lives as we have been talking about boys since the point at which we were lamenting no one would ever ask us out on a date 🙂  What has been most interesting is the strange parallels in our intercontinental criss-crossing.  We have both lived in Australia.  When she was living in Paris, I was in Germany so could hop on a train and come to visit.  Now she is back in New Jersey so getting together in person is easier but she is an incredible writer so we still have letters travelling back and forth – they are just electronic now.  I cherish them.  They are full of newsy detail and personal thoughts – far removed from a tweet – and my life is so much richer for it.

And Sarah now lives in NYC!  She has made good on our wild imaginings about what it might be like to live in NYC.  It’s not what we would have imagined back then.  She is married with children now – and the cool factor has migrated beyond Nolita to the Lower East Side.  She’s brilliant and insightful so it was fascinating to hear her initial impressions of life in one of the most famous cities on earth.

And it will make it easier to visit her!  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, most of my friendships have an unusual genesis.  Sarah and I became friends because she was my roommate for 6 weeks in Calgary during the summer of 1983.  I was living in the University of Calgary student dorm so the facilities were pretty limited and her sister lived in town so I barely saw her but our few chats really intrigued me so I made sure we exchanged contact information.  Neither of us has ever had much free time and it’s a bit incredible our paper correspondence survived before the internet.  She is a scientist so she was my first email!  There have been many since.  And some live encounters to supplement the flow of bytes.

The message?  You never know what life has in store for you.  And how random people in your life might align and create new adventures.  If you meet someone you find interesting, be sure to get some contact info – and then just see what happens…  All three of them opened up my world and changed my life – for the better.


p.s. one final restaurant recommendation that didn’t fit into the stream of consciousness…  Nomad (from the brilliant guys at Eleven Madison Park)


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