A Birthday At Home

cake

My birthday was last week.

I spent it at home.

In true time honored tradition, I flew to my hometown to see my dad, little sister, grandparents and aunt and uncle to have my cake and eat it too.

It wasn’t your typical shots-at-the-bar fiesta (that came later).

Instead, I asked for a birthday party.

Maybe I was in a reminiscent mood.  Maybe I wanted to celebrate in a grandparent-friendly establishment.  Maybe I had my kick-ass 10th rollerblading birthday at U.S. Blades on my mind or the one that followed when my parents rented out an entire ice arena and I made my friends skate with me (watch me skate).

I wanted cake.  I wanted to wear a dress.  I wanted balloons.  I wanted toasts.

I wanted my home-based family around a table.

My dad made reservations at our favorite Russian restaurant (the only food grandpa said he would eat).  My grandma took me shopping to purchase a new birthday dress.  My little sister spent the morning picking out her most appropriate soon-to-be-a-teen ensemble (sweatpants and over-sized shirt).

The day was everything I hoped it would be.

It was nothing fancy or extreme.  But it was special.

Dad pre-ordered all of my favorite Russian dishes. Each family member took a turn at a toast.  We took pictures.  We laughed.  We reminisced.  We ate cake.

I felt blessed to be celebrating quietly (loudly) with my family (possible sign of oncoming maturity).

Absolutely Awesome.

Turquoise Waters, Sand and Heat Lamps

beach

Yesterday morning I found myself in Fort Lauderdale, dining on the boardwalk with my cousin, overlooking the ocean… under a heat lamp.

It was an unexpected turn of cold-er events.

We had tried planning for my visit to South Florida for months and given the fact that I’ve been enduring (complaining) about the Chicago winter for almost as long, I was really looking forward to some 80 degree sun-bathing and PIC (partner-in-crime) – ing with my one and only first cousin.

Family history: cousin and I were born 9 months apart in Kiev, Ukraine. Me first. Her second.  Certain personality traits were immediately evident as I struggled to share and she had trouble sitting still.  We were a handful right from the start and kept our “village” (two great grandmothers, two grandmas, one grandpa and two sets of parents) on their toes.  A few years later, my family moved to the states and hers followed about a year later.  We’ve been marching to the beat of our own drummer ever since.

Cut to present day and our brilliantly-planned rendezvous in Florida.

All was going to plan, except for the fact that we overlooked the weather situation when I impulsively booked a flight about three weeks ago and prompted the celebratory phone calls and emails in anticipation of warm-weather antics.

Not surprisingly, we were mildly taken aback (shockingly angry) upon stepping out of the house and finding our beach day to be a balmy 60-ish degrees.

A couple moments of reflection and we were back in the house.

Two cups of tea later we regrouped and laid out plan B.  I googled things to do in Fort Lauderdale/Miami while cousin did in-depth research on activity ideas in this month’s Cosmo (apparently dating ideas is applicable in all instances).

Some serious fits of laughter and discussion of ideas later, we were regrouped and ready to tackle the weekend.

After all, 60 is better than 20, the sun was shining and we were still hungry.

The last 48 hours consisted of the following:

  • Long walk along the beach (in pants) where we admired those brave enough to jump in
  • “Brunch” of tuna fish and veggie sandwiches (where we attempted to procure breakfast items circa 2pm)
  • Taking advantage of the “couches” on the veranda of the W Hotel (where we pretended we were guests and enjoyed beautiful views and amenities)
  • A visit to the Las Olas Art Fair (where we received unusual bouts of attention with the help of an adorable Pomeranian puppy)
  • Mani/Pedi’s at the spa (and some unfair but ultimately hilarious hostility from the manicurist)
  • Dinner on the boardwalk in South Beach (complete with two mojitos the size of my head)
  • Late night dancing at some Miami night clubs (with new interesting friends and an inspired photo-shoot complete with props found in the Delano hotel lobby)

miami beach

The last 48 hours did not include beach time, but we made the most of it.  We laughed constantly. Caught up on life.  Even made some new friends.

Awesome.

Beets, Lemons and a Little Mahi

cooking

Today’s Awesome was simple.

I cooked for myself.

I’m not sure what it is about having my own apartment (it’s my first!) but it’s making me want to get out all the pots and pans and make a big mess.

The history of my food preparation prowess is a slim novel at best.  I never thought I’d like it.  I used to detest the idea and figured that any future male would just deal with this (modern) woman.

Over the past couple of years I’ve taken a new liking to it and these days I find that it comforts, provides some zen after crazy days and allows me to keep track of the ingredients I’m putting in my body (some of the time).  I also find it’s a great way to spend with oneself.

SO.

After an intense workout, I took myself to Wholefoods to experience one of the greatest parts of the cooking process: the grocery store.

In my opinion, the grocery store is like a toy store for adults.  You no longer have to kick and scream in the aisles.  Just take the Frosted Flakes (pay) and go home.  Going in makes me giddy.

Plus.

Free samples.

Heaven!

After much deliberation and in-store iphone googling, I decided on a fish and salad.

I picked out healthy ingredients that would also facilitate a post-thanksgiving cleanse (see my family’s ability to eat) and walked home anticipating the next two hours of chopping, boiling, sautéing and grating.

I purchased the following main ingredients:

  • Radish bunch
  • Beets
  • Lettuce
  • Cucumber
  • Eggs
  • Garlic
  • ½ pound piece of Mahi Mahi
  • Also two jugs of pomegranate juice, sparkling water (my favorite) and babybel cheese (couldn’t help myself)

vegetables wholefoods grocery store shopping

After unloading, I went to work taking care of the steps that would take the longest.  I’ve found that cooking is really a lesson in time management.  For example, boiling beets takes 45min-1hour whereas sautéing Mahi takes about 20 minutes.  And no one wants cold Mahi.

Therefore, the beets were up first.  I trimmed back the leaf stalks per instruction, and placed them in boiling water.  Then set out to chop up the vegetables and dice garlic.  I chopped the radish and cucumber and boiled and sliced the eggs.

At the 10 minute mark (on beet timer) I threw the Mahi in the pan as instructed with garlic, lemon and white wine (I drank some too).  I peeled and sliced the boiling beets, made sure the Mahi was taken care of on both sides and arranged everything on plate (presentation is key!).

mahi mahi

The entire exercise took about1.5 hours and was extremely calming.

I felt a personal sense of accomplishment.  AND, it looked good enough to eat.

I think mom would have been proud.

Awesome.

Russian Thanksgiving: An Exercise in Over-Eating and Food Hopping

thanksgiving vodka russian people celebrating

I am accustomed to wading through crowds, airports and screaming children to make it home for the family – oriented holiday of the year.

This year was no different.  I was home for thanksgiving.  However, having moved to Chicago (from NYC) a few weeks ago – my heart sang when the typical airplane ride home was replaced with a friend picking me up and delivering me to my hometown in Michigan a few hours later.

The rest of the weekend was business as usual.

Of course I say weekend because a Russian family’s thanksgiving couldn’t possibly consist of one evening or of one household.

Instead, we prefer to see how many times we can prepare an entire feast and how many other homes can provide the feast for us.

My arrival on Wednesday prompted the setting of a celebratory feast.  A visit to the grandparents called for a banquet.  A check in with family friends was the perfect opportunity for a ceremonial spread.

By the time today rolled around, I had eaten more than I had in the past month and was really starting to crave bare vegetables.

For those of you from the Ukrainian/Russian/Jewish/Immigrant variety, you’ll probably relate to the following:

  • Roasted chicken instead of the traditional turkey
  • Spanakopita (the always beloved Greek addition to thanksgiving)
  • Herring, sardines, lox, cheese, salami and prosciutto (favorites the pilgrims overlooked)
  • One too many toasts about being thankful (for a reason to toast)
  • Turkey (or chicken) for breakfast
  • Family members discussing your figure while simultaneously scoffing at how “little” you’re eating
  • And of course (my favorite)… using what’s left of Vodka as gravy (see picture above)

We watched our family’s favorite movie (Other People’s Money) for the 187th time (and recited lines together).  Sis and I told stories under the covers with flashlight (modern times: flashlight app) and engaged in cartwheel competitions that dad judged (I still got it!).  Days were culminated with family swim hour after our hearty meals (not advisable).

Aside from the fact that comments such as “you should eat more” started to have negative effects on my aggression meter (I can’t fit anymore!), I’d say it was a perfect thanksgiving.

Awesome.

The Art of the Goodbye Party

goodbye party

On T-7 days until the big move (Chicago, are you ready?!), I got appropriately dressed for going away party number one.

Having come to New York right after college and spent five years in the glorious city – I decided (and friends approved) that inviting a slew of individuals to one of our favorite bars from our “just-out-of-college” days was the best way to proceed.

I reserved half the bar for myself and said brood of (sophisticated) jaeger-bomb loving friends.

To start the night, we held a “pre-game” at my brother’s apartment and appropriately took some shots and made some toasts to start the night.

Feeling pretty happy and ready to party like its 2007…. We made our way to one of my beloved bars to properly say goodbye to New York City.

The night was a fantastic success.

I found the following to be essential to my fond memories (in no order):

– A tiara (No, it’s not my birthday. Yes, I pretended it was half the night.)

– A throne (The bar had a wooden throne. I utilized this surprising item to my fullest enjoyment.)

– Vodka

– Friends from all walks of life that reminded me of the great life I’d built

– New friends (brought by old friends.)

– My brother

– Angry bouncers (how I’ll miss your spunk old friends.)

I was my hyper self.  I took random photos that looked absurd in the morning.  I shared nachos with 20 people.  I danced.  I hugged (a lot of people). I made new friends.  I spent time with old friends.  I celebrated.

Hung-over breakfast was even sweeter than usual.

Awesome.

Love Stories, Boxes and Playbills

lincoln center opera house

On Day 43, I found myself enjoying a pastime I had not experienced or thought about in 15+ years.

I was probably around 10 years old when my mom took me to the Opera for the first time in effort to share with her daughter, her love of the art.

Unfortunately, my 10-year old self didn’t get the message regarding music’s trans-formative nature.  I wanted chips and popcorn and when that was done… to go home early (can you blame me?).

Cut to the present.

A friend invited me to the Metropolitan Opera House to experience Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot from private box seats.

I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this must-see experience (before my move from NYC!).  Plus, who can pass up an opportunity to get all dressed up and enjoy private seating (I was channeling Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman)?

After making our way to Lincoln Center (no easy feat during rush hour!), we walked towards the beautiful fountain and prepared to take our seats.  As the curtain went up, I was instantly mesmerized by the gorgeous sets and story-line.

Turandot is a fairy tale love story (romantic comedy from the 1920’s if you will) set in China about a princess who tests numerous suitors by offering riddles and has those who answer incorrectly beheaded (love this).

I loved the acting.  I loved the music.  I loved the happy ending (don’t want to give too much away!)

I thought about how much my mom would have loved this and found myself smiling by the end.

Awesome!

Miniature Cameras, Bugging Devices and False Bottoms

On Day 40, one of my friends suggested we head to the theater district and skip Broadway in favor of a Spy Exhibit.

SPY: THE EXHIBIT, was an interesting way to start the evening.

I’m not sure what I expected but everything you might imagine such an exhibit to have, was included in this extravaganza:

  • Dead mice used to stash secret documents during the cold war?  Check.
  • Aircraft designed to fly 3 times the speed of sound and pick up foreign secrets?  Check.
  • Fake bricks known as “dead drops” with secret containers for money/messages?  Check.
  • Laser room where one embarrasses oneself by fiercely dodging strobes of light while random passerby’s watch outside on screen?  Check. (Uncharacteristically, I skipped this activity… but LOVED watching).
  • Remote controlled catfish AND dragonfly developed to “explore the use of underwater and aerial vehicles?”… CHECK.
  • Voice recording station where one records oneself and changes voice intonations (and broadcasts comments about said friend)?  Check.

One of the coolest parts of the exhibit was the history lesson we received.

I’m no history buff! But even I shut up and paid attention once we entered “The Vault” with relics from WWII, the Cold War and the Russian Revolution.  All of these hit close to home and I was mesmerized by two displays in particular:

  • A limited edition copy of Dr. Zhivago captured by the CIA and originally banned by Soviet Union Officials (author was given the Nobel Prize but was forced to decline it by the Soviet Government)
  •  A letter written in May of 1945 by Richard Helms – a commanding officer in USA’s Office of Strategic Services – on Adolf Hitler’s stationary to his young son (age 3), explaining the significance of the victory.

Chilling.

Awesome.

Holidays: A “Family” Affair

rosh hashanah shana tovah new year jewish

On day 39, lil bro and I found ourselves in Brooklyn for rounds of toasts with our New York family in honor of Rosh Hashanah.

Today my brother and I toasted to the New Year with our family friends from back home (Michigan) who now also live in the boroughs of NYC.

Our history stems back to our pre-teen days.

Our moms introduced us when we were about 7 and 12.  They would have girl time while my brother and I were “baby-sat.”

These stories are legendary (including one hairbrush incident that involved the loss of some of my hair…).

Fast forward 20 years.  Marriage and kids for her and running wild in NYC for us and you have yourself the second generation of our family unit.  We celebrate birthdays, important anniversaries, milestones and promotions.  Our version might be different than the original but we still get together in much the same way our parents did 20 years ago.

Tonight was no different.

We told inappropriate stories.  Discussed bedroom incidents.  Teased each other mercilessly.  Attempted to remember the endings to old Russian children’s stories (wine was involved).  Feasted for 8.

Add a plethora of apples with honey for a sweet New Year (to increase our odds) and you have one great night.

Mom would have been proud.

Awesome.

Tourist Adventures… Through the Eyes of a 12-Year-Old

statue of liberty, inspiration, travel

Day 34th‘s Awesome took months of careful planning and serious persuasion (manipulation?).  Finally, my brother and I convinced my dad to put our (12-year-old) sister on a plane headed to NYC by herself.

Before any Awesome could begin, we had to deliver her to the airport and collect her at the other end.  All sounds easy – but in today’s world, picking up a minor at the airport is akin to picking up the Spice Girls for a reunion tour.

Once the maze of security badges, screening, hours of waiting and celebrity-style escort services (yes, obviously it takes 4 people to escort a child off a plane) were complete and we were safely in NYC, we marveled at the city (buildings!  Telephone booth!!  Tall ladders!!  Taxi cabs!!) and proceeded to map out the conquest of the next few days.

First major stop:  Lady Liberty and Ellis Island

The excitement I feel regarding the statue never waivers.  I was about 11 when I first saw the sheer magnitude of her size and was struck with awe from the water.  Now it was sissy’s turn to experience it for herself.

Despite trying to convince me that the Statue of Liberty looked like a man, I think sis loved it and the trip was a success:  we partook in the audio tour; we ate turkey sandwiches by the water; we had a photo-shoot; we bought souvenir bracelets.

After spending a couple hours with the Statue, we embarked on a short ferry ride to Ellis Island.

For those who have passed on the opportunity to see this iconic island, I would get back aboard ship.  This historical site is mesmerizing.

Our favorite part:

The photo exhibit depicting the deterioration of the immigration center before its restoration.

The photographer was the great grandson of a woman who came from Russia and told a tale of bringing empty suitcases on the voyage so Ellis Island security wouldn’t know her family had no possessions to speak of.  He became immersed in the decrepit buildings and spent a month on the small island photographing the site.

His passion seeped through and we became equally immersed in dusty medical equipment, over-grown courtyards and fading plaster on walls that told the story of 12 million immigrants who sailed past Lady Liberty for a chance at freedom.

Awesome.

The Art of the Russian Feast

Filled with inspiration and energy from spending two weeks at home, I decided I would love to prepare a feast of my favorite Russian home-cooking for some close friends.

A small dinner party was organized and I set out preparing the menu.

3 days of slave labor (and phone calls at midnight to my family asking for help) later, I had enough food to feed a small army (just like home!) and wasn’t hungry at all (really takes it out of you).

The fact that this kind of table is set for my siblings and me every time we are home and in multiple locations is mind-boggling.

I GREATLY appreciate my mother, father, grandmothers, grandfather, aunt, parents’ best friends, neighbors who are culturally close to Eastern Europe and just random people who spend/have spent time preparing food for my arrival… (and don’t just outright tell me off on the phone when I demand certain foods are made)

Without further delay, I present the menu served:

  • Red caviar on traditional black bread
  • Russian Havarti and “Doctorskaya Kalbasa” plate (type of sausage)
  • Pelmeni with sour cream (hand rolled dough filled with different types of meats)
  • Olivier Salad (type of Russian potato salad that includes egg, potato and bologna among other ingredients and too much mayo.  This is my favorite food by far)
  • Vinegret Salad (Potato, beets, carrot… http://www.ruscuisine.com/recipes/salads-and-dressings/n–603/)
  • Chicken Cutlets (admittedly these were a bit overcooked)
  • Chicken Liver Pate
  • Herring
  • Russian Waffle Cake
  • Russian Chocolate Candy (The favorite candy of my childhood: “mishka and “belachka”)
  • Vodka (“Russian Standard”)
  • Wine (every kind)

We laughed at the sheer amount of food (“what were you thinking about quantity here?!?!”).  We ate until we couldn’t move.  We told stories (Customary).  We planned future get-togethers and laughed until we cried.

Verdict?

Success.

Awesome.