New Orleans and Me – A Love Story

Thank you.  Thank you place of employment, for giving me work on an account that allows us to do good things and sponsor cool events.  Thank you for putting me in charge of said events.  Thank you Laura Mayes for creating the Mom 2.0 summit and thank you Megan Jordan for not allowing horrible things to ruin your spirit, and for being the storyteller you are, on paper (shit…we need a new expression for this…on the interwebs?) and in person.  Thank you both for coming together to make the stories of hope event at the Eiffel Society in New Orleans a true success, on a professional and very personal level.

Thank you Heather Armstrong, queen of the mommy bloggers, for not running away when I approached you to tell you my old friend and former roommate was your biggest fan.  Thank you for remembering that she waited for three hours outside your book signing in Brooklyn so she could meet you face to face.  Thank you for remembering that her mom emailed you after she passed away last year to tell you what an inspiration you were to her, as an aspiring write herself.  Thank you for talking to me at length about her, and for being truly interested in the story of her life.  And thank you for what you did Saturday night, after being reminded of Robin’s story, in front of hundreds of people (and thousands of online followers) dedicating your story of hope to her.

Thank you universe for allowing me to play some role in having Robin’s idol honor her on a stage in a public setting, in front of so many other talented writers.  Thank you for allowing her memory to live on 15 months after her passing.  She must be going ballistic up in heaven knowing that the one and only Dooce so publicly acknowledged her.

What a vast difference this weekend was compared to that first trip to New Orleans.  From hating the cheesiness and spring break-like atmosphere to finally understanding it after interacting with those who were affected by the hurricane, to actually having a deeply profound evening that overwhelmed me with emotion.  New Orleans, we have quite the relationship.  If visit number one was an awkward first date, I think we just consummated our relationship, and I’m even inclined to say I may have just fallen in love with you.

Saturday evening, we (we being Tide Loads of Hope) threw an event at the Eiffel Society, a beautiful structure that used to sit atop the Eiffel Tower.  The event, called “Stories of Hope,” featured 10 incredibly prolific writers who rose to fame because of their written musings on what we’re currently calling “mom blogs.”  This was the concluding event for the Mom 2.0 Summit, a “mom blogging” conference held this year in New Orleans.  We decided months ago that since New Orleans was the birthplace of the Tide Loads of Hope program and, let’s face it, Tide loves moms, we would absolutely have to be a part of this event.  We had each reader dedicate their story of hope to someone they knew who was affected by disaster.

Which is why I was so touched that, in addition to dedicating her story to someone she knew in Japan, Heather, queen of the moms, chose my old friend Robin, aspiring writer/designer/friend/fiancee, to honor.

Like I said, this trip to New Orleans was quite different.

All along, I thought traveling to different places was the most inspiring thing I could do.  Seeing beautiful places, going on new adventures.  Why did I fall in love with Morocco?  Was it the scenic coast of Essouira, or the overwhelming aromas of the souk? Did I love Guatemala because of the beautiful volcanoes I saw across Lake Atilan? Undoubtedly those scenes were breathtaking, but when I think back to some of the best trips I’ve taken, I think of the people.  I think of Hayat, and Tim and Brian, and the Moroccan families, and the Guatemalan children, and even the people with whom I traveled to these places.  Sure, I hated the cheesiness of Bourbon Street when I first stumbled upon it last summer.  When I saw Frenchman Street, the disappointment turned to appreciation and admiration.  But this time, this was a whole new level of amazement.  Could the Mom 2.0 summit have happened in any other city? Sure.  But if it had, would we have heard Megan’s story about losing her house in Hurricane Katrina, a story that went beyond anything she’s publicly written?  Did hearing her tale in person, in the very place where it happened give us all a stronger connection to the Gulf Coast? Absolutely.  Was I embarrassed to cry at a work function? No, I was proud.  Because it turns out, I’m not as inspired by the beauty of the places I go as I am by the people I meet while in said places.

At the end of the night, Laura and the Mom 2.0 gang made a donation to the Red Cross with the money from Tide’s sponsorship.  It’s hard not to walk away completely inspired when you’ve spent an entire weekend soaking up the awesomeness of creative women who are probably some of the best writers and storytellers in the country.   I went in as a PR chick only there to represent her brand and throw an event that people would enjoy.  I walked away feeling like part of a community.

And for that, women of Mom 2.0, writers, storytellers, families abroad, creators, designers – I thank all of you.

Ok, New Orleans, I finally get it.

My summer of 12 hour workdays came to an end when my team and I traveled to New Orleans to put on a concert commemorating the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I’ll spare you the details, since I don’t want to make this a work related blog, but we basically paid a high level spokesperson (Faith Hill) to perform a concert in New Orleans to honor those who have stayed in the area in the five years since Katrina hit. I wrote about this in communication materials, spoke about it to media and spent months preparing for it, but I don’t think I actually GOT it until the evening of the actual concert. See, we made sure the theater was filled with local residents as well as people who worked at relief organizations in the area. About an hour before the concert, we realized a mistake had been made, and we had about 50 extra tickets right in the front orchestra section.

After I got over my panic attack and readjusted some of the seating, I took a handful of tickets, and right before the concert started, I made my way up to the upper balcony section. I went up to a couple and asked if they were with a relief organization. They actually said, “No, we’re with the fire department.” I looked at them quizzically and said, “Well, that’s certainly a relief organization,” and handed them two orchestra section tickets. They were amazed, and thanked me before going downstairs to take their upgraded seats. After handing out a few more tickets, word must’ve spread throughout the upper balcony to what I was doing. One elderly man came over to me and tapped me on the shoulder as I was giving out some more tickets to some folks from Homeland Security. He said to me, “I hate to ask, but is there any way you can upgrade me and my wife? We’re sitting all the way up there…and I know you’re giving these to relief organizations. I’m from St. Bernard’s Project, and I helped save thousands of lives when the hurricane hit.” I smiled, and handed him the two tickets I had that were closest to the front. He thanked me, and I said, “no…thank you!” I was thrilled to be the person to give something to this man who had clearly given so much to his community.

Later that evening, as the lights went down and Faith Hill took the stage, I was amazed that my team and I had just put on a large scale concert. But as amazing as that feeling of accomplishment was, the part of the evening that stood out most was being able to give something to that man I met in the upper balcony. In all communication leading up to the concert, we kept saying how this concert was about the people of New Orleans. And as great as it was to have coordinated such a high profile event, what we had been saying all along really held true, the evening wasn’t about the theater we had decorated, the production we had coordinated, or the celebrity we had signed on – it was wholeheartedly about the people of the area.

After the concert, my boss took us out to show us the “real New Orleans,” on Frenchmen Street. Again, I finally understood what people love about this town. We entered a small, dark bar, where there was a five piece brass band playing and four or five couples dancing in a way I had only seen in old movies. The quickness of their feet, the energy they exerted into the room, you couldn’t help but stop and stare…and wish you could dance like that. I felt like I had been transported to the 1940’s. And I loved it. After finishing an Abita beer, we headed to the next bar, where there was another brass band playing, and a female singer who had the most amazing voice, again feeling like we had been transported to the 1940’s. There was even a piano in the ladies room of this bar. It was hilarious, and incredible – like nothing I had ever seen before.

I finally understand why everyone falls in love with this town. Once I veered away from the chaos of Bourbon Street, met a few locals, and entered a few dark jazz clubs, it all began to make sense. And I won’t even get into the part of the evening when we followed the “bicycle balladerist” out of what our cab driver dubbed “the safe zone” and got some po’boys in the ghetto of New Orleans. Another experience I won’t soon forget. Our night ended with the Westin room service guy delivering complimentary ice cream to my room at 4 a.m., while I was devouring po’boys and other New Orleans delicacies on my bed with my bosses. Now, where else can you have an experience like that?

A Much Needed Local Mini Vacation

I haven’t enjoyed this summer at all. It started off as being filled with one obligatory event after another, disappointing experiences here and there, but then it kicked in to full on insanity when my normal workdays turned into twelve-hour-can’t-stop-for-one-second-to-breathe-or-eat-lunch kind of days. Then one morning I woke up to a phone call from my sister that her boyfriend had been hit by a car. He survived but was in critical condition. It was incredibly scary for the first few days until the situation became much less seemingly life threatening. Now he’s stuck at home in a neck brace for months, can’t move his left arm, and takes daily trips to various doctors. Last week I had heart palpitations and found out all the valves in my heart were leaky. Today my dad was in terrible pain and they think he has kidney stones.

No one is enjoying their summer. We only get three months of good weather and it’s at this time that everything seems to be spiraling out of control. I know, it could be worse. Everything is on the mend and will be ok. I finally got to enjoy my summer this weekend for the first time. I went out to fire island with a group of friends and left everything behind. Ironically, it was the most beautiful weekend of the summer. We spent three days sitting on the beach until sunset, barbequing, sitting in the hot tub on our deck and boozing til the sun came up. I almost didn’t sign up for this summer share, but even for three days on Long Island, not so far from home, this weekend was the most necessary vacation I’ve ever needed. Here’s the view from our deck. I can’t wait to go back in August.

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From Cheesy to Cheesier

Although I can’t stand Atlantic City, for some reason I was excited to go New Orleans for the first time on a business trip this week. I was kind of disappointed to find that it was just one big cheesy spring break spot. I’m sure there’s local culture somewhere, but I definitely didn’t see it. Maybe it was because I stayed right in the French Quarter and didn’t know where to go to find the good jazz clubs and the famous New Orleans cuisine – although I did enjoy a delicious breakfast of chicory coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde. I also don’t recommend going in July, the humidity was like nothing I had ever experienced. I broke into a sweat upon exiting my hotel room, and walking around was brutal. I took three showers in one morning so I wouldn’t be a complete disaster when arriving at the venue I was checking out for our upcoming work event. I did stumble upon one really beautiful art gallery that featured local artists, mostly focused on jazz paintings and colorful fish murals. They were displayed in an outdoor garden which was really lovely to browse in.

Through the disappointing experience of seeing this new place I had always been curious about, I wondered if living in New York just made me completely immune to being surprised and impressed by anything anymore. Even the beautiful cathedral in Jackson Square, slightly removed from the cheesiness of Bourbon Street, was only okay to me – it looked like a less impressive version of the national cathedral in D.C. I didn’t even see the damn oil spill. At least that would’ve made me feel relevant and connected to something that’s going on in the world right now. Hopefully when I return next month for the actual work event, I get to explore more of this city and find out what the big deal is…

Morocco, Day 10 – Marrakesh to New York

The last night in Morocco, we sit down to dinner and talk about our trip highlights. Every single person reminisces about a memory they had with a loan recipient, either in Brian’s village of Midelt, Tim’s village of Tigmijou, or meeting Naima from Khenifra at the craft fair. I talked to Brian on the bus earlier that evening, about what he would do when he gets back to the US. He wants to go to business school, or maybe work for US Aid. I can’t imagine what it will be like for him to come back to the US and assimilate after spending so much time in this beautiful place, adapting to Moroccan culture for so many years. I’m worried about how I’m going to adjust after only ten days.

We say our goodbyes after breakfast and leave for the Marrakesh airport. The airport is filled with stranded European travelers. Joya’s boarding pass reads “Joshua,” but she gets through security anyway.

About ten hours later, I’m looking out the window of the plane as we pass over Long Island. I’m not sure I’m ready for this. We’re landing at JFK in ten minutes and I know I won’t be happy to go back to real life, to work, to the materialistic culture of NYC. But even here at home, I still have Nest. And I need to keep this experience close over the next few weeks…and for the rest of my life. Knowing what I do, when I’m running around the city trying to get restaurants to donate food to our event, when I’m stressing out trying to convince venues to host our event at no cost, I have to sit back and remember that every little effort we make helps the women we personally met here, who invited us into their homes and broke bread with us – knowing what we do every day helps them and people like them – that will make the post vacation transition more bearable, and will bring me back to how I felt in Morocco. This is why I do this, why all these amazing people around the world have come together for this cause. This trip made me realize that I’m living my dream, and helping others do the same.

Morocco, Day 9 – Tigmijou

April 19 – It is a rough morning. We’re all feeling the effects of the night before, and Joya almost kills me when I open the window to light the room (to find the advil and antacids). We go upstairs to breakfast on the roof and scarf down croissants, yogurt, crepes and assorted pastries. Joya and Kate want to order five more rounds of coffee, but I need air. I go to stand at the railing where I’m looking out at the ocean. I spend about a half hour out there, enjoying the beauty of the scenery in front of me. I can’t remember when I last felt this peaceful. I try to etch this morning into my memory so I can revisit it for years to come.

I finally pull myself away from this scene to go with Rebecca, Kate, Joya and the boys to the souk to buy olives, fruits and nuts to give the women of TIgmijou – they want to serve us food when we visit, but they don’t have the means to provide enough food to our group of 14. I buy a package of bracelets to give out to the girls and young children of this village. We spend the rest of our morning walking on the beach, looking at the camels and horses around us, taking in a view of the “castle in the sand” Jimi Hendrix supposedly wrote the song after, Joya riding a horse on the beach and some seashell collecting, we sit down to an outdoor lunch of mixed salads and tea.

The road to Tigmijou is incredibly scenic, with rolling hills and wildflowers of red, yellow and purple. The village is small, with four little clusters of houses. Tim lives in a house on a hill, a little removed from the rest of the village. We see three teenage girls giggling at us as we walk up the path to his house. We can’t go inside because it seems as though his roof has fallen over in the week he’s been gone. We walk through a meadow to get to the house of the family we’re going to visit. Along the walk, we pass a stray donkey grazing in the meadow. We enter a hut, built in the same Moroccan style of homes and guest houses we’ve been seeing – a structure with an open courtyard in the middle. Upon peering into the home, we see two young children – a boy and a girl, giggling and laughing and running up to us, then bashfully running away when we wave and smile at them. We enter into the courtyard and introduce ourselves to the women, kissing them twice on each cheek. We peer into one dark room where a woman is sitting at her loom, already strung. She is rapidly weaving the water reeds through the loom. Hicham, Tim’s young artisan who we met at the craft fair, says hello to all of us and Tim explains that all these people are part of Hicham’s family. We peer into their bedroom, with no door and rugs laid out for them to sleep on. The next room is the storage room, filled with these magnificent, completed water reed bags. We sell them back in the U.S. as market bags. My mother will purchase four of these bags from Nest’s website after hearing this story.

We enter another room off the courtyard, removing our shoes first. We sit around a bench with cushions and the women bring us the olives and fruits we purchased in Essouria. They also bring us bread and olive oil. I’m on the far side of the room – most of the women are sitting at the other end of the room near Tim and Brian, the only Arabic speaking people in the group. One of the family members comes over and sits near me. She starts breaking the bread and motioning for me to eat. I take a bite and say “beneen,” one of the two Arabic words I’ve learned – meaning delicious. The little toddler girl walks into the room and bursts into giggles. Everyone is laughing and smiling at her. The woman next to me is also laughing, and we exchange a glance, which sends us into a whole new fit of laughter. She tells me to eat more and I obey. I point to a water reed bag sitting next to her and ask if she made it (using hand motions). She nods and smiles. A child’s laughter, food, art, these are all universally appreciated. I couldn’t verbally communicate with this woman, but we were able to carry out an entire conversation while eating in her home.

Tim goes around and tells us about each of the women, how they are all related, and explains that they have a wedding to go to that evening because one of the girls from their town is marrying a man from the next village. When we’re done, we all walk out of the room, slip back into our shoes, and the women lead us to another house with a loom in it. I give out bracelets as we pass little girls and teenagers on our walk through another field of wildflowers. We take a quick look at the loom, but our driver is getting angry that we’ve taken too long, and threatens to leave without us if we don’t get on the bus immediately. He actually begins removing our bags from the bus at one point. Moroccans make their own rules. We say goodbye to the women, apologizing for our abrupt departure, and as we pile onto the bus a group of small boys laugh and bully each other as they watch us. Again, behaviors that transcend languages and continents.

Morocco, Day 3 – Fes

April 14th – We wake up at 5:30 a.m. and board our little tour bus. It’s a seven hour drive north to Fes. The trip is a scenic drive through Moroccan fields and mountains. It’s wildflower season and we see varieties everywhere of yellows, reds and blues. Someone yells that they want to lie in a field of poppies. I agree. We are driving in the middle of nowhere and see the first cluster of huts we’ve seen for hours. There is one small shop in this cluster, with two signs outside. One says Coca Cola, one says Tide. No matter how far you go, work will always follow you.

We arrive in Fes after our long trip, and enter the magnificent Riad Tizwa. A redhead comes bounding down the steps, and we drop our luggage and run to hug Joya, who has finally made it to Morocco after her demanding legal job almost prevented her from taking the trip she had been looking forward to for months. She takes me to our room, which has a canopy bed with closeable curtains, a fireplace, and an intricate Moroccan lantern hanging from the ceiling. The bedroom windows look down into the hotel lobby, where the rest of our group is still getting settled and finding their rooms.

We leave the Riad to visit the famed Fes Souks, which are exactly as I imagined – crowded alleyways with shopkeepers trying to sell you everything from fruits, spices, camel meat, jewelry, clothing, shoes, herbs and more. At first I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy in these shops, although I was taking notice of some mirrors with beautifully decorated mosaic patterned frames. Some of them had little doors on them that opened to reveal the mirror, and many of them had a distinct orange color that I adored. I finally came across one that I decided I must have, with an orange and gold border. I’m told the orange is camel bone with henna dye. I bargain the shopkeeper down to half of what he first asked for, so I probably got a reasonable price for a white tourist. We make our way back through the souks to the clock tower café, where we eat couscous, vegetables, cheese, fruits, almond, banana and date shakes, and…camel meat.

Arriving in Morocco

April 11th – We arrive in Marrakesh, sleep deprived and weary. We patiently stand in what must be this country’s version of a line for an hour to get through customs. After getting this much anticipated stamp in my passport, I am pleased to see a young attractive gentleman with curly black hair holding a Nest sign. He is the epitome of American in Morocco – sandals, faded cargo pants, a linen shirt with rolled up sleeves and rope bracelets tied around both wrists. The other Peace Corps volunteer who will be acting as our tour guide for this trip looks more like an all American boy, with a button down shirt and jeans. They introduce themselves as Tim and Brian, respectively, and help carry our luggage out to the cab line. Our cab drops us off at our hotel, and while Kate, Rebecca and I check in to the hotel, the boys stand outside shouting back and forth with the cab drivers in Arabic. We’re told this is the traditional way of bargaining in Morocco.

Once everyone’s settled, we go to the courtyard where we drink mint tea and eat pastries in the African sun. This architecture is consistent throughout the trip, buildings that wrap around a central courtyard. We see it everywhere, from the fancy hotels of Marrakesh to the remote villages in the south.

We take a walk through the streets of Marrakesh and come to the famous medina, where everything I’ve read about comes to life. Men holding snakes approach you (and if you’re like me, you scream and your friends laugh at you) Everywhere you turn, someone is yelling at you to buy something of theirs. It’s not so drastically different than markets I’ve seen in Israel or Guatemala, but it still feels more exotic. We turn up an alley, and a store owner grabs my arm. I pull away, and catch up to the boys. I stick near them for the rest of the walk.

We walk through a small door in an alley off the medina, and we are in Earth Café, which puts a vegetarian spin on Moroccan food. We eat lunch upstairs in a semi private room. After a feast of goat cheese salads, filo dough with cheese and vegetables baked inside, and an assortment of couscous and pastillas, the café owner comes upstairs and sits at our table. He seems to know Brian and Tim well, and he tells us visitors about the organic farm he owns, not too far from here, where he grows everything he serves in this restaurant. He describes the horses, donkeys, the litter of labrador puppies who were just born, and the rabbits who are populating by the thousands because they won’t stop mating. He also talks about the frogs that keep him awake because of their mating. We’re pleased to hear that so much love takes place on this farm. He invites us to visit if we have time. We oblige, and head back to the hotel.

Dinner that evening is on a rooftop overlooking the medina. It is a beautiful night, and I share an enormous piece of lamb with Tim. It is delicious, but incredibly large and overwhelming. Luckily, he eats most of it.