Bon Voyage: A Magical 10 Day Trip Through France

The linoleum floor of the San Diego airport squeaks beneath my Asics tennis shoes. Riley’s borrowed purple carry-on Samsonite in hand and my Targus backpack swung over my shoulders, I make my way to the international terminal. My Delta flight from San Diego to LAX is on time and so am I, for a change. Once my back hits the navy blue passenger seat my eyes instantly close and my mind drifts off into Lala Land.

The wheels hit the ground marking our arrival. Damn, that felt like we were in the air for 23 minutes. That’s because we really were in the air for 23 minutes. The shortest flight I’ve ever been on.

The flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport is a bit longer. 11 hours to be exact. In the meanwhile I sleep, read, watch the incredible cinematic spectacle known as Birdman and write my blog. I also make friends with my neighbor to the right, a woman in her 40s traveling to Morocco with her father, and my neighbor to the left, an older woman with dyed black hair anxious to explore Paris for her first time. In line for the bathroom a young German girl, bright eyed and bushy tailed, talks my ear off about her first time being in America. “I never thought I would want to be in America, but now I never want to leave,” she says. For dinner I order chicken. Big mistake. As someone who has frequented his fair share of McDonalds’s, Burger King’s and Salsita’s (see entry, “Everything is Bigger in Texas”) in my 25.9 years of life, I’ve consumed a hefty amount of meats that more resemble chemically injected tire than edible foods. Nonetheless, this “chicken” may take the cake for food that isn’t really food. First of all it’s gray. Maybe this was a byproduct of being trapped inside an airtight airplane tray for God knows how long, but nonetheless it’s gray. Secondly, it’s the shape of the tray. I don’t know if it always was, or whether it expanded while being heated, but the chicken was literally a rectangle. I poke the blob of meat and it jiggles like gelatin. Some sort of brown sauce lingers in one corner of the container, seemingly not having spread proportionately. My best description of the food’s scent is aluminum, plastic and something sweet. Too hungry not to eat, I take my first bight. It’s slimy and it’s chewy but it has probably been processed too many times to contain anything harmful. I finish the meal and go back to sleep. I dream about junkyard tires.

The plane touches down and the doors open. For the first time in my life, I step foot in France. Now I must find my parents. Thanks to T-Mobile’s Global Data plan, communicating over a mobile device while abroad is as simple as domestic communication. Unlimited free text and data plus $0.20/minute phone calls. I call my father and identify his location. Thirty minutes later I spot my parents in the train station. I smile as I watch my dad anxiously look down at his cell phone, wondering why I haven’t answered his texts for the past 10 minutes, and mouth the words “Ну, где он? (Well, where is he?)” My dad turns and spots my wide grin. The side of his mouth curls into a half smile. We embrace and say a few not-so-kind things to each other, in typical father-son style. Despite having seen my parents just over two weeks ago, the feeling of being back in the presence of the two beings that gave me life is no less rewarding

30€ poorer, the three of us stand on a mostly abandoned train heading towards Javal station. 10 minutes into our transition we switch to a metro train. We exit the metro and lug our bags towards Port de Javal Bas where the Amadeus Diamonds awaits our arrival. A ship, significantly smaller than your typical ocean cruise line, rests in the calm water of the Seine (pronounced “Sehn”) River. A green walkway leads us from the concrete sidewalk to the carpeted cruise floor. We check in and receive our keys. While my parents share two twin beds pushed together in Room 226, I get room 228 all to myself, thanks to my little brother having to cancel his trip to France due to the high school state finals in tennis. I drop my bags and plop on the bed to read. I’m going to stay up until nighttime so I don’t get jet…, I fall asleep before I can finish my thought.

Tonight is the Captain’s dinner. 147 individuals fill the dining room consisting of about 30 tables. The right side of the room is occupied by Germans while the left by Americans (and an Australian couple). My parents and I locate a table near the back of the room and sit down. Atop the bleach white tablecloth rest plates, silverware, napkins and a menu. The menu is broken up into 5 sections: a cold appetizer (“entrée”), a hot appetizer (also an “entrée”), a snack, the main course (a “plate”) and dessert, in that order. While I scan the menu a young, black couple asks if they can join us at our table. Robert (pronounced “Ro’-bear”) and Regina are from Denver, CO and have chosen to celebrate their anniversary on this river cruise.

The 5 of us take turns dictating our orders to Julian, our waiter from Romania. With a pudge belly, a shiny bald head and an endless supply of wise cracks, I feel an instant affinity towards this man.

While 5 courses may sound intimidating, upon seeing our first dish I begin to wonder whether 5 courses is enough. A salmon and salad dish is what I ordered and what I receive are four 1-centimeter-in-diameter semi spheres of ground salmon surrounding one lettuce leaf. I down the dish, wondering whether my body gained or lost weight after eating this meal.

In between our teeny portions of food, my family and our table guests discuss a wide array of topics, from travel and food to economy and politics (yes, I know you’re not supposed to discuss politics at dinner, but hey, it happens). Robert and Regina seem to have traveled the entire world. This is quite possibly a literal statement. Of the 20 or so countries we bring up in conversation, the couple has been to every one: Russia, South Africa, Spain, Italy, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. The list goes on and on. For an occupation Regina works for a marketing company and Robert is a project manager, but from the sound of our conversation, you’d think they spend all day reading the newspaper front to back. Whether discussing the Stalin’s rule of Russia in the 20s, 30s and 40s, the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg or the fluctuations of the Euro over the past century, the couple has a ton of information and opinion to contribute.

Of applicable topic, we discuss the European form of dining. “They treat eating as an experience here,” Regina says. “When Europeans sit down to eat they truly savor every moment. Whether with company or on their own, Europeans consume multiple courses and take the time to enjoy every bite. They don’t watch TV or sit in front of the computer; they simply sit at a table, grab a glass of wine, and allocate a couple hours of their evening to enjoying food.” This statement obviously doesn’t apply to all Europeans, as is evidenced by the group of kids I saw earlier in the day mindlessly eating fries at a McDonalds with their noses buried in their cellphones, but it’s still an interesting concept. I can only speak for myself, but more often than not, I do 10 million things while eating. Whether it’s watching ESPN, skimming the newsfeed on Facebook or texting, I seem to do everything possible to dull out the meal itself. I make a promise to myself to attempt to eat more mindfully going forward.

I won’t go into detail about every course we eat but I will say that they are all delicious. And after desert, we load up our plates with a variety of cheeses and crackers and fill our cups with coffee and tea. From start to finish dinner last 3 hours. But feels a lot shorter. I head to my room and am soon asleep.

I wake up to our boat docked in a new location. We are in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a small commune in North-Central France. This town, with a population barely half as large as that of my college, can be explored in a few hours. The weather is cool and sunny and my parents and I take off on a walk along the cobblestone streets. Not a half block to the left of our ship is a market. Kiosks full of fruits, vegetables, meats, desserts and negotiating customers line a block along the coast of the river. For a tiny market in a tiny town I am blown away by the quantity and variety of meats sold here. Shrimp ranging from an inch to a foot in size, every part of a cow, from its tongue to its kidney, rabbit, lobster and crab. Certain that it’s long dead, I tap a crab atop it’s shell. It’s eyes shift from side to side and it’s claws make sharp, small maneuvers. I jump back in shock. My mom and dad can’t hold back their laughter.

We walk for two hours or so and then another hour after lunch. The typically European cobblestone streets are barely wide enough to fit a pair of bicycles, let alone a vehicle. The cars are tiny, with the brands Peugeot, Renault and Citroen making up the bulk. We ascend the hill leading to the apex of the town and towards a large cathedral. Upon opening the doors and entering the cathedral grounds we realize we’ve just crashed a Muslim wedding. Aside from a few glances, the attendees don’t seem to mind our presence. We soon leave and walk to a wall along the hill’s edge providing a panoramic view of the entire town. Not far below I spot our cruise director and a handful of adventurous tourists making their way through a secret passageway. Not long after I lead my parents down the same route.

I wake up the next morning to another new location. This time we are in Rouen (pronounced “Ruw ah”). My parents and I enjoy some breakfast in the dining room before commencing our 9 a.m. guided tour. We walk along streets and through alleys containing homes dating back to the 17th century. What’s most impressive about these homes is they aren’t made of durable rock, they’re made of wood. Oakwood, to be specific. To make the Oakwood more durable, inhabitants would soak the timbers in the ocean for 7 years and then dry the wood for 7 years before building with it. 14 years later, construction could begin. Another interesting facet of these homes is they are significantly larger on the 2nd and subsequent floors compared to the ground floor. Why? Because back when they were built, owners paid taxes on the surface area of the plot of land. So after building a tiny first floor, they would gradually increase the size of each subsequent floor. The result is an optical spectacle of multi-story, overlapping, leaning houses.

As we wander towards the main square the guide points out that the cobblestone roads are taller on the sides than in the middle. The reason for this is twofold. The first reason has to do with the nonexistence of a toilet at the time. Residents of Rouen (and various other towns) during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries would toss their waste out of windows and into the streets (of course they would first have to yell “Guardez l’eau!” to inform all passerby’s of the oncoming wad of crap (pun intended)). And in case you were wondering – yes, that expression did, in fact, popularize the modern day term for toilet, “loo.” To maintain the filth and the stench residents used a combination of nature and pigs. They let pigs rummage the streets and consume the waste while the rains would take care of any remnants. The second reason the streets were taller on the sides was because that is where the kings would walk. As such, they would appear taller and “of a higher class” than the rest of the town’s residents. If a mere citizen happened to cross the path of a king, he would have to step down into the middle of the street while the king continued walking on the side.

Our last stop in Rouen is at the memorial of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc, a peasant girl living in medieval France, believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its long-running war with England. With no military training, Joan convinced the embattled crown prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans, where it achieved a momentous victory over the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. After seeing the prince crowned King Charles VII, Joan was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake (which has been since replaced by this memorial) in 1431, at the age of 19.

Sunday morning I wake up to yet another new city. This time we are in Caudebec-en-Caux. Our morning tour takes us to Etretat, a commune along the English Channel. The weather is much colder today and the ocean breeze only makes matters worse. Our group, cuddling to retain warmth, listens to the history of this town. To me, I’m more entranced by the beauty here than the history. To the left is a hill leading to a massive cliff with a striking resemblance to an elephant drinking water from the ocean and to the right is an equally massive hill leading to an equally beautiful view.

While the hike to the “elephant cliff,” as I’m dubbing it, is more challenging, my parents and I decide to undertake it. Shivering in our boots, we ascend quickly, only stopping to take scenic photographs. I cause my mom’s heart to skip a few beats as I climb atop rocks and stand on ledges “only idiots” would stand on. We make it to the top before rushing down to ensure we make it back before the bus leaves. Arriving a few minutes early, my dad and I meander through a local fish shop, with me careful not to touch any crustaceans.

After lunch we have another tour. This time to Honfleur; home to a scenic harbor in the center of the city, an ageless wooden church and 12th Century chateau ruins. Our guide leads us into the Basilica of St. Thérèse, dedicated to St. Theresa. Photos of this wondrous girl rest along every wall. As the story goes, St. Theresa had an energy unlike anyone. She also had the ability to cure many incurable illnesses. 100 years after her death, the ill still pray to her to cure them. Our guide tells us a personal story in which she also prayed to St. Theresa and a miracle happened.

After dinner I head to my room and chat online with Riley. With a 9 hour time difference between San Diego and France I’m only able to speak with my girlfriend for the few hours between dinner and bedtime. Tonight we do a fair bit of catching up. The responsible girl she is, Riley’s been working every day. And with me not distracting her all the time, she’s been wildly productive in purchasing health insurance from the exchange (since she turned 26 this month and will no longer be covered by her family’s plan beginning in May), applying for tutoring jobs in our next location and coordinating her babysitting gig which is set to begin in a few weeks. This is the first time I’ve been apart from Riley for more than a few days since we started this trip together, and I dearly miss her. But as they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Monday morning we’re ported in the same spot as the day before. While the majority of the group leaves for the optional tour to Normandy Beach (think: D-Day), my parents and I decide to have a lazy-day and stay back on the cruise. Our physical activity today consists of my dad and I playing shuffleboard on the deck (this is my dad’s first time ever playing) and my parents and I going on a short stroll through the small town. To put in perspective how small this town truly is, in the 2 hours we walked every inch of Caudebec-en-Caux, we ran into the same man 5 times.

At 5 p.m. every day, anyone interested is invited for coffee, tea, sandwiches and dessert in the panorama room, where servers stand patiently behind the bar and a man in a suit plays classics on the piano. Feeling jocular, I decide to play a prank on my dad today. While he stands up to get some coffee, I take the black olive off my salmon sandwich and bury it into the middle of his vanilla pastry. I carefully compress the surrounding cake to conceal the tiny black ball. He returns to his seat unknowing. Attempting my hardest to avoid laughing I bring up casual topics like our remaining itinerary and how my little brother is doing back home. Waiting for my dad to begin eating his pastry is torture, as he prefers to casually eat his sandwich and sip his coffee. Finally, he takes the first forkful. I turn away, trying my hardest not to laugh. He takes another forkful, still not having gotten hold of his little surprise. I close my eyes and look down at the floor. He takes a 3rd forkful, this time unwedging the olive from its temporary home. It rolls onto the plate. I burst out laughing to the point of streaming tears. My dad stares at me wide-eyed, waiting for me to explain myself. But I can’t. “You need to fix this problem,” he says, still oblivious to my prank. Shaking his head in non-understanding he forks another chunk of cake, this time taking the olive for a ride. I turn to stare at my dad as he scrunches his face in disgust. His face remains in that form until he breaks out into the longest, heaviest laugh I’ve seen in years. For the next three minutes we cannot stop laughing. For sure, the fellow passengers on this cruise ship are convinced we spiked our coffees with vodka. “Those damn Russians.” Once calm enough to speak my dad looks at me and says “If you were 13, I’d understand. But you’re nearly 26 years old, Misha.”

I wake up early on Tuesday, knowing I have to be on the tour bus by 8:30 a.m. The drive to Giverny is storybook like (well, at least the parts I see in between naps). We pass fantastic fields of animals, gorgeous gardens with blooming spring flowers and endless rows of pink-flowered apple trees. Our pint-sized tour guide, maintaining a hilarious high-pitched French accent, utters the words “ooh-la-la” and “ya,” more times in a 5 hour stretch than I have heard in my entire life. But she makes up for it as her tales are captivating and her knowledge is expansive. She takes particular joy in morbid stories, such as that of the 2 men who were having an affair with the prince’s wives and were thus tied to horses, urinated on for days while being starved, then castrated, skinned alive and hung from a tree. “How crazy, ya?” she says upon finishing her recollection with a smile.

Giverny is where Claude Monet lived and painted for the final 43 years of his life. His 5 bedroom home is a spectacle in itself, but his garden is out of this world. The scene for many of his most famous work, including countless bridge paintings and the world renowned water lilies series, this garden contains rows upon rows upon rows of exotic flowers of all shapes, colors and sizes. Foot and a half tall yellow and red tulips, full beds of remarkable red roses, passionate purple Aubrietas and gorgeous white irises trees fill this massive plot of land. We cross the bridge, represented in countless masterful works of art, and near the water lilies. How tranquil it must have been to live here.

No one enjoys this gander through the gardens more than my mom, an aficionado of flowers. The smile never leaves her face as we quietly stroll through this rainbow of color. Using me for my photography skills, she has me snap pictures on her phone of the countless florae dispersed here.

Foregoing the second tour of the day to Versailles, we stay on the boat as it takes off back to Paris. My dad and I sit atop the deck and watch as we approach a dam and are subsequently entrapped inside a lock which fills up with water before allowing us to continue our journey, now 10 feet taller. We then play another round of shuffleboard, which is won by my dad. Old man’s still got it.

At dinner, we eat our usual 4-5 course meal with our new Russian friends, Valerie and Irena. We met them on our second night on the cruise and have been eating all our meals with them since. The couple, appearing in their late 40’s to early 50’s have actually been married for 40 years. Originally from Odessa, Ukraine, they moved to Brooklyn, NY around the same time as my family. They now own a house in Brooklyn and seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Tonight’s conversation is mostly dictated by my mom and Irena, as they discuss TV shows and Russian books. After dinner I finalize Riley and my move out inspection (taking place the day after I return, on April 26) and our move out date (April 30).

On Wednesday morning we are docked in Paris. The trip has come full circle. We rush breakfast in fear of missing the 8:30 a.m. bus tour. My parents and I stand outside the bus confused why only Germans surround us. Turns out our tour doesn’t begin until 9 a.m.

In the few hours we have before lunch, the bus driver cruises through Paris, while the fast-speaking tour guide describes our surroundings. If you’ve been wondering when I was going to mention all those places you generally associate with Paris, the answer is now. We drive past the French Parliament, cruise beside the Louvre (a whopping half-marathon’s worth of hallways and containing 30,000 paintings on exhibition and another 270,000 in the basement) and park beside the Luxembourg Gardens. We then drive over to Trocadero square where we observe the gorgeous Hôtel National des Invalides and the, you guessed it, Eiffel Tower. Built in 1889 for the world fair and the 100 year anniversary of the French Revolution, the Eiffel Tower is truly a magnificent work of art and architecture. Parting from our tour group in order to do our own exploration of Paris, my parents and I walk beneath this 986 foot tall structure. As much as I’d love to ascend the 3,720 steps to the second (of 3) levels and then ride the elevator to the top, I know that this will consume the entire day and we won’t get to see anything else. As such, we merely walk through the evergreen fields of the Champ de Mars and onto the artificial island of Île aux Cygnes, containing the 1/3 in size replica of the Statue of Liberty, before returning to the ship. After lunch my parents and I walk to the L’Orangerie museum, highlighted by two galleries containing the eight tranquil paintings of Monet’s large-format waterlily series. If lined up side by side, the works would measure 91 meters, or 298.5 feet, in width. They are also conceived so that the four in one gallery represent sunrise, and the four in the other evoke dusk.

The day is capped off with a delightful 5 course Captain’s dinner, an introduction to the wonderful men and women that make our dining experience possible (the kitchen crew) and a few meaningful words from the ship director. The Baked Alaska dessert is the perfect topping to a delightful meal.

At 9 a.m. the next morning we depart the ship for our final time. Despite not refunding us for my brother’s cancelled reservation or allowing us to switch out his reservation to another name, Gate 1 (the company through which we purchased our reservations) and Amadeus Diamond were a class act. Everything from the food to the service was sincerely enjoyable.

A few metro transfers later we arrive at Saint-Mandé Station. A 20 minute walk later we arrive at Building # 23, home to Yafa. Yafa is a woman we contacted through AirBNB. While our original plan was to stay in her second flat in the center of Paris, her boiler exploded. However, she was kind enough to lend us her main unit in Saint-Mandé while she left town for a personal matter. The flat is everything we need. 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and a living room. WiFi and a functioning boiler is included.

After unloading our belongings, we head back to the center of Paris to meet with a tour guide we hired through recommendation. Her name is Zhenya and she is originally from Moscow, Russia, like us. We start our tour with a tasty peasant-style lunch at Lyon Café, where I get to try foie gras for my first time. For those who don’t have a weak stomach, foie gras is the overfattened liver of a goose. To create this delicacy, a goose’s liver is force fed with food until it becomes excessively large. The goose is then killed and it’s liver is fed to the French. This sadistic ritual results in this fat and cholesterol rich food I consume today. The rest of our afternoon is spent on our feet.  Our first stop is the Saint Chapelle, where Zhenya attempts to bypass the long line awaiting entrance by stating she is a tour guide. In return for her efforts she is reamed out by the woman working the ticket booth, loud enough for the last person in line to hear. After a few impolite things said (which I won’t disclose in this blog) between these two alpha females, we get back in line and eventually enter the cathedral (but not before the ticket lady told Zhenya she will not sell her tickets until Zhenya apologizes). What stands out most about this 13th century building are the stained glass windows on the second floor. These intricately designed pieces of art are the most extensive in-situ collections of 13th-century stained glass anywhere in the world. The blues, yellows, greens, oranges, reds and purples illuminate as the clear-skied sun shines through the glass. The 4 of us then stroll through Ile de Cite en route to the Notre Dame. Emphasis, on “the” as this is the world famous Notre Dame, built in the 13th century. Not one of the umpteen other Notre Dame’s we’ve seen on this trip. The cathedral lives up to the hype, from both the exterior and the interior. 315 foot tall gothic structures encompass this massive form or architecture. It took 185 years to fully complete this structure, and the result is truly awe-inspiring. We also wander through the Latin Quarter, home to the world famous Sorbonne University (University of Paris). In the center square countless students rummage through textbooks in notebooks while sipping on coffee and nibbling on pastries at the Café’s. Unlike my experience at the University of Florida, rather than locking yourself in the silence of your room or the library, students here prefer the jibber jabber of the many cafes dispersed throughout Paris.

As we cross one of the many bridges from which tons and tons of locks (yes, like the cheesy scenes in love movies), a boy on a scooter (not unlike the Razor scooters we rode as kids) scoots by me. This is another unique aspect I’ve noticed of France. These scooters are everywhere. Children and adults alike, cruise around town in these L-shaped chunks of metal as if it’s the greatest invention on earth. And with the narrow streets and heavy traffic, they may be the greatest invention here.

At 6 p.m. we depart from our host and catch a taxi towards Avenue George V, home to the famous Crazy Horse show. Before entering the theater we sit down for dinner at a nice looking restaurant. We order escargot, duck and salmon. Despite the concept of eating snails sounding rather nasty, the pesto and olive oil drenched delicacy is absolutely delightful.

Not to say I’m overly experienced in erotic shows, but Crazy Horse is by far the most sexual thing I have ever witnessed. I won’t get into detail, plus I’d rather you see it for yourself, but all I’ll say is you will be hard-pressed to find any sign of clothes, at any time, on the performers. I also wouldn’t say this is the ideal show to watch with your mom and dad, but if it’s not awkward for you then be my guest.

By the time we arrive home it’s nearly midnight. I undress and plop down on the bed belonging to a child. With my feet hanging off the edge, and surrounded by Spider Man toys, I fall asleep.

I wake up Friday to our final day in France. My mom is sad, as she always is at the end of vacations. Today’s itinerary consists of the D’Orsay museum. While this 5 story, former train station has a plethora of visually stimulating pieces, I am most overjoyed by the 5th floor, containing Impressionist work from the likes of Claude Monet, Eduard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, Alfred Renault and Pablo Piccasso. Three to four hours and a sub-par café lunch later we exit the museum and continue our exploration of Paris. Our next stop is Montmarte, home to the stunning Basilique du Sacre-Cœur. We ascend the 270 steps to the structure and walk through impressive interior. We then walk through the overcrowded-with-tourists streets of Place du Tertre until locating a pastry shop. My mom has been waiting for this moment since, well, probably since before she even arrived to France. Paris is renowned for their pastries and my mom has been aspiring to purchase and munch on one of those little pies with berries and glaze on top. We purchase 3 goodies – a slice of pear pie, a chocolate éclair and a slice of raspberry pie. We sit on a typically tiny French table and ingest more unneeded sugar. Since arriving in France, I’ve been eating desserts 3 times a day. Like clockwork, I have a sweet every lunch, pastry hour (see olive in the cake story above) and dinner. If I’m feeling really rowdy I’ll even have one of those chocolates the cleaning lady leaves on my pillow before bed. That’s an absurd amount of sugar but I’m in France; I can’t help it.

After this tasty break, we stroll along Rue Lepic, where we encounter the homes of Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, before entering Boulevarde de Clichy (the red-light district). Here we have shop after shop of sex stores and club after club of strippers. We pass a 6 story Sexodrome. Speaking of sex, one thing I would like to talk about is the P.D.A. (Public Displays of Affection) in France. Like the stereotypes suggest, there’s plenty of it. At bus stops, museums, restaurants or merely in the middle of the street – couples are constantly sucking face for the world to see.

After getting offered hashish and cocaine and kindly declining, I continue walking with my parents in search of a restaurant. Along the border of the gay district we find one. We order duck filets and lamb. A wonderful last dinner in Paris. The only thing missing are frog legs.

An hour later I’m hungry again and I order a crepe with chicken, cheese and tomatoes in the Jewish district. This tasty goodness is prepared right before my eyes. Meanwhile, my parents, seemingly wanting to avoid a sugar crash, order another raspberry and strawberry pie at the local pastry shop.

We walk a bit farther until reaching the Bastille metro station. Before descending into the underground world of metro trains we take a second to admire the Place de la Bastille (the center square). Many years ago this city housed one of the most prominent prisons in the world.

I wake up Saturday morning feeling well-rested but unsettled. This wonderful trip has come to an end. I spent 10 wonderful days with my family and once I walk out Yafa’s front door, I likely won’t see my mom or my dad for months. My sadness is mitigated by the thought of Riley. In less than 24 hours she’ll be waiting for me at the San Diego Airport terminal.

I shower and join my parents at the breakfast table. An omelet, fruits and yogurt. It’s a few minutes till 10 a.m. and I turn to look at my mom. The corners of her lips curl downward and her eyes take on the form of a sad puppy’s; a face I’ve seen her make at the end of many a family vacation. “I don’t want this vacation to end,” she says.

A slight pang of guilt fills me as I realize my parents go back to work in two days while I go back to traveling. I stand up and hug and kiss each of my parents. Bon voyage.

The linoleum floor of the San Diego airport squeaks beneath my Asics tennis shoes. Riley’s borrowed purple carry-on Samsonite in hand and my Targus backpack swung over my shoulders, I make my way to the terminal exit, where Riley awaits me.

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Happy Birthday to Me. Come on Down.

It feels like the days of old – when I was a teacher and Spring Break arrived. No babysitting, tutoring or teaching this week, just play and birthday celebrations.

It’s Saturday morning and my bags are packed for Temecula, a city an hour north of San Diego. Ainsley, Courtney, Patrick, Shane and I pile into Pat’s pickup truck and head north. Courtney, my teacher friend from Dunwoody Springs, is in town visiting her sister, Ainsley. In fact, Courtney is the reasons Ainsley and I met. And how thankful I am to her, as Ainsley has become my best friend in San Diego.

Today we are honoring Courtney’s arrival by going to the “Napa Valley” of Southern California. The large plots of land and spacious houses are a drastic change from North Park, where people practically live on top of each other. Ponte Winery (or as I heard it, “Poncho” Winery) is the first stop. Rose bushes, adequately watered grass and a lavish lake make Ponte the perfect venue for wine and fancy events. We each purchase tickets good for 6 samples of wine and select our first beverage. We then step outside to sip our drinks amid the spectacular landscape. Walking into the vineyard, we are pleased to find ourselves the only occupants of this area. We walk among the rows and rows of grapes, chatting about useless things and snapping photos.

On to the next winery – Wilson’s Creek. This location is even more stunning than the previous. The boys play bocce ball while the girls sit on the soft grass beneath a shadow-casting tree. Between the effects of the succulent wine and Courtney’s dry sense of humor, I find myself in tears with laughter.

All that wine makes us hungry, so we head to Public House, a restaurant in the town’s old-western style downtown. Between Pat’s family and our group of friends, we occupy the entirety of this massive, circular stone table. Hamburgers, sandwiches, salads and fries satisfy our tummies.

That night we relax and watch and the epic March Madness Semi-Final between Wisconsin and Kentucky. Well, not ALL of us watch – by half time Courtney, Ainsley and I are merrily snoring away. The boys seem to enjoy the game though. After a late night snack Misha and I head over to the guest house, which was graciously offered to us by Pat’s parents. We lay down and are soon staring at the backs of our eyelids.

Packed again, Misha and I are ready for another trip to L.A. Holding back the tears, I say goodbye to Courtney, unsure when I will see her again.

Seat belts on and hungry, Misha and I drive straight to Chinatown. We park and bee-line past the Chinese lanterns, cheap souvenirs and pet shops straight to Yang Chow restaurant. After our ungratifying experience in Chinatown – San Francisco, these dumplings, wonton soup, rice, green tea and sesame chicken far exceed my expectations.

With a few hours remaining before the arrival of my mom and her best friend, Vivian, Misha and I head to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). You may know this museum by the famous lamp posts constructed on its premises. While I’m not a connoisseur of art, I do find some of the contemporary works by Andy Warhol and his peers quite fascinating. To my pleasant surprise, I stumble upon a painting by my grandfather’s first cousin, Jasper Johns. Among the many buildings and hallways present here, Misha and I view exhibitions entailing German Horror Films, Faces of America and Tibetan Pottery.

As we pull into the arrivals terminal at LAX I think to myself how fortunate I am to have my mom fly over 2,000 miles to visit me…twice in two months. While I love San Diego, I do get homesick – and seeing my mom this often mitigates the sentiment. I am also looking forward to seeing Vivian. When my mom and Vivian get together, you never know what’s going to happen. One thing is guaranteed – things will get interesting.

LAX is not my favorite airport. I’ve had poor experiences here before and seeing the chaos unfolding here now isn’t doing much to change my mind. The traffic here is worse than Atlanta rush hour. People flock across the street, disregarding all signs and rules. Moody cops do little to control the situation other than yell at unsuspecting drivers (including one cop who called Misha an “idiot” for putting on his blinker and attempting to switch lanes). It’s an hour after their flight was supposed to arrive, yet neither my mom nor Vivian have received their baggage. Once again, welcome to L.A.

Tonight we have a late dinner. It’s after 11p.m. when we’re handed our menus. Despite it nearly being the next day, Bossa Nova Brazilian Restaurant is packed. This reminds me of the late nights I had in Rio de Janeiro, when my friends and I wouldn’t even begin getting ready for the disco until midnight.

The table next to us hosts two couples. Stylish haircuts, leather jackets, designer skinny jeans and high-rise sneakers make up their appearance. These kids, possibly a decade younger than me, speak in a nearly indistinguishable music-industry-esque accent, indigenous to Los Angeles. Misha and I heard similar speech from some of Josh’s peers last time we were here (see entry “The Final Leg”).

Feasting in a Brazilian restaurants reminds my mom and me of my brother, Pierce, who is currently teaching English to schoolchildren in Brazil. Pierce and I often discuss how genuine and friendly Brazilians are. Our waiter reinforces this opinion. He is almost too eager, with smiles and attentiveness, to make sure we are having an incredible experience at his restaurant. He even gives us a completely flan dessert for my approaching birthday (at midnight).

While brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed at the Comfort Inn, Misha escapes outside stating he left his toothbrush in the car. Moments later he knocks on the door, marking his return. In his hands he doesn’t hold a toothbrush; rather, he holds a large rectangular shape covered in wrapping paper. It’s past midnight, meaning I’m unofficially 26 years old. Feeling a mix of emotion and curiosity I clumsily rip apart the wrapping paper to discover a canvas upon which an image is drawn. Two faces, painted black and white with the exception of blue eyes and red lips, stare at each other affectionately. One is a man while the other is a woman. Between them is a wooden heart covered in pink construction paper and split into quadrants. The characters clearly represent Misha and me. I can’t help but crack up at the image of Misha’s blood-red, voluptuous lips, and perfectly chiseled face, making him appear a bit homosexual. While the painting is nice, the true gift lies within the heart (no pun intended). My job is to peel off a quadrant of the heart, revealing the name of a restaurant. Misha will then treat me to a meal at that restaurant. I then peel off the next quadrant and repeat the process until all 4 quadrants have resulted in tasty meals for us. This is a very thoughtful gift as I have often preached to Misha how I regret not having taken advantage of San Diego’s vibrant food scene. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.

Not having slept nearly enough to function, Misha and I leave bright and early to pick up my mom and Vivian from the Lowles Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. No one loves seeing celebrities quite like my mom. And in not-surprising fashion, she finagles her way into obtaining free studio tickets to see The Price is Right, Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil.

Misha and I drop my mom and Vivian off at Ellen before heading to The Price is Right. We stand in a long line only to find out that the morning episode is “16 year olds” and that we can’t get in. While Misha and my mom (via text) attempt to convince me to tie my hair in pig tails and feign being 16, I highly doubt I will appear a decade younger than my sincere age.

Turns out, my mom and Vivian arrived way too early for Ellen. So they grab an Uber and head our way. With time to kill, we cross the street to a farm-to-table restaurant and order eggs and mimosas. Bottomless mimosas, that is. The plan is to eat and drink and then head back to The Price is Right, in attempt to get onto the 12:30 p.m. episode – themed “Teachers.” Fittingly, I’m a teacher. Even Misha qualifies, since he’s technically a substitute teacher (despite him never having actually stepped foot into a classroom).

After a long wait, we are let in through the gates. Woohoo. We are first seated on bleachers in a large room resembling a storage garage. For the next hour or so, we sign waivers, receive name tags and have our photos taken (which will later cost us $40 a piece if we want to buy them). All the while, the 298 people surrounding us scream endlessly and jump for joy in attempt to be noticed. After all, only a handful will “Come on down.” Despite the mimosas, the atmosphere is a bit too enthusiastic for me.

About twenty of us are ushered into the next waiting area where casting directors select random people and ask them questions. Misha and I are both selected. I am asked two questions by the casting director and I intentionally give bland responses to avoid getting selected. Misha, on the other hand, is asked 3 questions. He jumps and pounds his fist with (what I believe to be fake) excitement.

We are escorted to yet another waiting area. This time we stand outside for about an hour before being guided into another room with more bleachers, TVs and excessive amounts of cheering. While waiting and munching on our overpriced quesadilla, Misha and I examine the self-made t-shirts and make guesses on which contestants will get called down.

After a combined 5 hours of waiting we are finally let inside the studio. Somehow Misha and I land front row seats and are right by the camera (hopefully, this means you’ll be seeing plenty of our faces on the September 8 airing of the episode). The show progresses mostly as expected. Certain audience members get called down while other cheer and applaud on command. After a few minutes my cheeks and hands begin to hurt from all the smiling and clapping. During commercial breaks Drew Carrey (host of the show) chats with the audience. To my surprise, he has a very dry and, dare I say, vulgar sense of humor. Some of the words that come out of this family-TV-person’s mouth truly surprise me (and outright offend a few of the unsuspecting teachers in the audience).

It’s after 6 p.m. when we finally get out. We need to be at my birthday dinner with my mom, Vivian, Beegie and her friend in negative 15 minutes. We rush to our car and head to Spago, an elite, celebrity-infested L.A. restaurant offering Wolfgang Puck’s luxurious menu and sleek decor. After valeting our car we rush inside to 3 familiar faces and Mike, Beegie’s friend and celebrity dogwalker, sipping on martinis. Before introductions are over, Mike orders me a lychee martini and informs me that, ironically, Drew Carrey is one of his clients. He modestly names a few other stars’ dogs he walks while sipping his Belvedere.

Eyeing the food choices presented on this 3-course menu, I salivate over the impending meal. Oysters, lobster pasta, cous cous and scallops are the first to arrive. Then the veal, seabass, meatballs and salmon show up. Dish after dish appear and soon disappear, as we indulge in these delicacies. Between the talk, the drink and the eating we manage to spend over 4 hours seated at this round table. The experience ends perfectly with the most delicious dessert I have ever witnessed. Just writing about it makes me melt with desire. This chocolate brownie is prepared from scratch in the kitchen and is immediately inserted into an air tight bag. The bag is only sliced open once it arrives at our table, emitting a mouthwatering fragrance which wafts 3 tables over. We cannot remove our eyes from the brown spectacle. Ice cream is placed beside the brownie. We all dig in simultaneously. And within an instant, the finest dessert known to man is consumed.

In the morning we are guided by Beegie on a hike to the Hollywood sign. Misha and I admire the multi-million dollar homes compressed along these sloping streets of Hollywood Hills. Beegie points out the homes occupied by celebrities, and there are many, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake, Tobey Maguire, Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck and Selma Hayek. Oh, and of course, the home originally belonging to the Monkeys. My mom and Vivian spend the next 30 minutes singing Monkey’s songs I’ve never heard. After the hike, Misha takes off for home while my mom, Vivian and I head dinner.

The next day, us three ladies head to a filming of Dr. Phil. Prior to entering the studio, one of the producers hands me a yellow slip, instructing me to sit in the front row. Unbelieving of my luck of having gotten front row seats to two consecutive shows, I joyfully walk up to the front and take me seat. Soon after, my mom and Vivian enter the studio and stare jealously at me in the front. They proceed to complain to the producer about not being able to sit with me in the front row.

“Well, that yellow slip is for the entire party. She should have brought you with her,” the producer explains.

“Can we go now?” my mom inquires.

“Unfortunately, the seats are already taken,” he says.

With envy in their eyes, my mom and Vivian assume their seats in the 5th row.

The episode is about the Amish Mafia (I can disclose this information now as the episode aired last week). While the show is interesting we are more concerned whether the cameras are capturing us and whether our faces will be appearing on daytime television in a few weeks. Ironically, my mom and Vivian receive significantly more camera action than me.

That night I catch the Pacific Surfliner train from Los Angeles to Old Town Station in San Diego. I hop off the train and straight into the passenger seat of my Acura TSX; Misha sitting at the wheel. At home, I plop on the couch, ready to relax. Birthdays are always exhausting. Especially when traveling. And especially especially when you are constantly surrounded by family, friends and events. That being said, my 26th birthday was everything I could ask for and more.

The Gosis’s Come to Town

Many of you may be wondering how Riley and my relationship has developed since we began this trip. It can’t be all roses, right? If you spend the majority of every second of 3 months together, there’s bound to be fights. Well, you’re right. As great as things are most of the time, we do occasionally bicker. For the most part, these are uneventful arguments that diffuse as quickly as they begin. A short debate about who should clean the dishes, perhaps. Or whether I need to drive more carefully. Nothing major. Around the beginning of March, the frequency of these small, meaningless arguments begins to increase. We just seem more irritable with each other. In the heat of the moment, this bothers me. But when calm, things are clear. For the first year and a half of our relationship, we’d see each other for a couple hours a day, a few times a week. Suddenly, we have no choice but to spend nearly every waking moment together. We don’t have our own apartment or our parent’s house to go back to where we can vent to the walls. If we want to be alone for a bit, well, we can’t.

After a week or so of discomfort, our pent up emotions culminate into a big fight. After the initial hours of anger and negativity pass, we talk. For the first time in a few weeks we REALLY talk. Riley tells me what’s been bothering her and I do the same. We hug and vow to be better. More importantly, we promise to talk to each other when we start feeling bothered by something. Thus, preventing a fight. Although uncomfortable at first, this is a necessary growing pain in a serious relationship. Things won’t always be wonderful. Even in the seemingly stress free environment of travel. Fights and disagreements are okay. It’s how you come out of them that define a healthy relationship.

On Thursday, March 19 my parents arrive in San Diego for their first time. Through the convenience of Air BNB they rent an apartment for $70 per day, less than a mile from Riley and my house. It’s too late for me to greet them tonight, but we make plans for the next day.

I roll into work at 9 a.m. on Friday. By noon I’m lying face down on a massage table receiving the deepest massage known to man. Oh, and did I mention this is my 3rd massage in as many weeks? Mike, the boss, treats his employees to Friday massages during tax season. Keith, with long, blonde surfer-kid hair and an envy-evoking bronze tan rolls in with his gear every Friday at noon and one by one we pile into the darkened conference room for 30 minutes of bliss.

Today, I’m having Keith work on my neck. While some people accumulate tension in their lower backs, shoulders or even stomachs, mine goes straight to the neck. “Tell me when I’m pressing too hard,” Keith says as he penetrates 2 inches deep into my neck muscles. “How’s that?” he asks.

“Fine,” I reply through mind-numbing pain.

Keith’s muscular fingers dig another inch deeper. “How about now?” he asks, excited for the challenge.

“You can’t marry him. I already called dibs,” Cathy, the fit woman working the front desk, says upon my exit from the conference room.

Feeling overly relaxed, I struggle being productive the next two hours. At 2:30 p.m. my phone rings. “We’re downstairs,” my dad says. I descend the one flight of stairs to my smiling parents and my too-cool-to-smile brother. One by one I hug them. My dad, excited about seeing his “hippie son,” storms me and kisses me on the cheek. I scan my family up and down. My mom and dad have been living a much healthier lifestyle these past few months and the results are noticeable. My dad’s beer belly has all but disappeared and my mom looks ready to run a half marathon. My brother, lingering in the background, seems to have gained an inch or two and maybe a tad bit of muscle, but aside from that appears the same. Still a little squirt who I’m going to crush in tennis.

And two hours later I do exactly that. 6 – 3, 6 – 2 is the score as big brother prevails.

Still tired from the previous night’s flight and from the emotional roller coaster of watching their two sons battle it out on the tennis court, my parents suggest we take it easy tonight. Upon arriving at home, I whip up some tasty tacos while my dad pops open a bottle of red. We watch sports and eat, just like the good ol’ days in South Florida. For desert we have a mouth-watering raspberry fruitcake. My mom, clearly not adjusted to west coast time, struggles to keep her eyes open so we call it a night.

The weekend is here and we’re on our way to Marina and Dima’s house. This married couple is a family friend of ours, who settled in SoCal over two decades ago. They live in San Marcos and know San Diego like the back of their hand. Today they’ll be taking my family, Riley and me on a tour of everything worth seeing in a day. We begin with a vintage Russian breakfast. Russian cottage cheese pancakes, fruits, cheeses and sweets go from table to mouth.

Riley, my brother and I slide into Dima’s car while my parents join Marina in hers. We drive through San Marcos and into Carlsbad, all the while listening to Dima describe the past and present of this scenic city. In Carlsbad we walk along the coast and admire our surroundings while drinking naturally alkaline water. Next stop, La Jolla. While I’ve been here many times, Marina and Dima’s tour encompasses the aspects I’ve yet to see. La Jolla Cove is filled with climbable rocks and sea lion fun. Children’s Beach is filled with more sea lions and their adorable offspring. The occasional sea lion, tired of basking in the San Diego sun, bounces on its tummy towards the water to cool off. Pelicans, Cormorants and gulls hang out with their mammalian friends in between flights in search of fish. We then walk through a serene coastal park before trudging through Prospect Street, lined with shops too expensive for my taste, and budget.

Back in the car, we drive south to Coronado, an island I’ve already spent a handful of days on. It’s not a trip to Coronado without a walk through Hotel Del. We feast on Mexican food, before getting back in the car and heading to Sea Breeze Village. After rising to the top floor of the Hyatt and snapping a stunning panorama picture, Riley, my brother and I depart from the crew and head home. A fantasy baseball draft needs attending to.

Sunday is my day to scout the San Diego Zoo. “Happy Birthday, mom,” I say, handing my mother a coupon for 50% off admission.

“My birthday gift is a coupon?” my mom asks, half laughing and half in shock.

We stalk the walkways filled with cages and animals. While seeing hippos and polar bears is awesome, I can’t help but feel sorry for these trapped animals. Nonetheless, the zoo lives up to its hype. The 4 hours we spend here is not enough to capture everything this place has to offer.

We shower, change and head to dinner in La Jolla where we meet with the very same relatives I met for the first time a few weeks earlier. Now it’s my family and Riley’s turn to meet them. The cuisine is Italian, and the bread and olive oil dip is to die for. Yet, the veal meatball pasta is even better.

After work on Monday, I take my parents to some of my favorite nature spots. A windy day results in skies filled with paragliders at Torrey Pines. We hike the half mile down to Black’s Beach while massive winged men and women fly above us. We stand around the beach for a while, talking and attempting not to stare at the swinging genitalia surrounding us. After three quarters of an hour standing in the sand and unable to convince my brother to play Frisbee with a particularly agile nude man, we decide to head back up.

The evening is capped off at Sunset Cliffs, where the sunset is as advertised.

Tonight, I cook. Steaks, potatoes and asparagus are on the menu. I recently mastered the art of frying steaks. And tonight I get to flaunt my skill. Taking a break from his beloved cell phone, my brother helps me prepare the food. After filling the apartment with just the right amount of smoke and flavor we sit down to eat. To my delight, the crew adores the meal.

Tuesday night is dedicated to exploring North Park. Exploring is a relative term. We walk slightly less than a mile to Underbelly, where we eat, and then another half mile to Mike Hess Brewing, where we drink. A complimentary beer glass in hand, I lead the family and girlfriend back to our apartment.

Wednesday morning my parents leave for Huntington Beach while I prepare tax returns. After work I head straight to Colina Del Sol park, where I face off against my tennis-foe, Nick, in the semi-finals of the San Diego Tennis League. Unlike our last matchup, I win, earning a spot in the finals. Thank you little brother for warming me up with a few practice matches this week.

I wake up bright and early Thursday with one thought on my mind. Drone. Today marks a monumental day in the history of Sky Vision Studios – our first 4 figure client engagement. I hop in Riley’s car and drive the 2 hours northeast to Idyllwild. I cruise along scenic, curving mountain roads passing cacti and succulents. By 9 a.m. I’m filming. Our client, Jay, has asked me to film his creek, which he intends to sell to the government. The intention is for the government to transform this 2 mile stretch of flowing water into a hiking/walking trail for the elderly and young. I spend the next 7 hours crawling through shrubs, walking through shallow water and avoiding mounds of poison ivy while filming Strawberry Creek, the surrounding town and county parks. Aside from slipping and slamming my shin against a rock, I come out mostly unscathed.

In typical Misha fashion I arrive home later than planned. I have 20 minutes to pack, drive to the train station and catch the Pacific Surfliner heading to Santa Ana. This is where Riley, my savior, gets clutch. She prepares dinner for me, purchases and prints my train ticket and damn near packs my bags for me. All I have to do is throw in a couple random items into my backpack and hop in the car. Riley drops me off at the Old Town Train station with 3 minutes to spare. Burrito still dripping from the corners of my mouth I hop on the train. That wasn’t stressful or anything.

I’m greeted by my parents in Santa Ana. The next day we head to Los Angeles, a city I don’t particularly like. It’s just, the three times I’ve been to this City of Angels, I didn’t get the greatest vibe. People seemed distant and self-interested. The streets seemed dirty and uncared for. Something just felt…off. However, this time the day starts off pretty good. We walk through Chinatown and then Koreatown. We eat some scrumptious Korean lunch and feel refreshed. We leave the restaurant and head to the car…

…It’s gone. No freaking way. No way did another vehicle I was acquainted with get towed. How were four people who had never seen a parking lot with less than 100 available spots supposed to know that when a meter reads “meter parking until 4 p.m.” it means that all cars parked after 4 p.m. will be towed. Riley and I saw a very similar sign in San Diego which signified free parking after 4 p.m. That’s L.A. for ya.

A Lyft ride and a $400 tow charge later we head to Hollywood. The walk among the stars does us some good and our moods are elevated. 2 hours later we arrive at Borya’s house. Borya and my dad have been friends since their births. A mere 6 months apart in age, they’ve spent many a day together back in Russia and a few more here in the States. But now they live far away. In fact, this is their first reunion in nearly 6 years. Borya’s 8 year old son, named Misha like me, and Borya’s beautiful wife, Anastasia, greet us. We chat for a bit while dinner is being prepared. A wine connoisseur and a courteous host, Borya whips out 4 of his finest bottles of wine. “Now you must try this 3rd wine with the New York Strip,” he says as my dad forks a one and half inch thick slab of meat onto his plate.

“I will. Let me just finish this glass,” my dad says, motioning to the ‘2nd wine’ he’s been sipping on. “It’s delicious.”

Borya reaches over the table, snags my dad’s glass of wine by the stem and makes a thrusting motion to his right. The blood-red liquid splatters all over the patio wall and grass. He then calmly reaches for the 3rd bottle of wine and pours my dad a glass. “Now try it,” he says.

The walkie talkie sitting beside Anastasia begins to whimper. The whimper soon becomes a full blown cry. The caring mother rushes to a bedroom and soon walks out with a 2 month old baby in her arms. This is Sasha, the new born. This adorable bundle of joy has the same name as my brother.

The next morning we munch on eggs and pack our bags. My family and I load up the rental car while Borya and his son hop into Borya’s sports car. Off we go to Beverly Hills. We traverse the hilly streets boasting affluent homes, before parking and exploring the Graystone Manor. We transition to Rodeo Drive, where we walk among the richest in the country. Rolls-Royces are the norm here, with a handful of Lamborghini’s and Ferraris speckled throughout. Gucci and Rolex are of the most inexpensive brands in the area. My wide-eyed brother envisions a lifestyle in which he can afford such riches.

The crew drives to Pasadena where they stride through the center of the city while I await a Lyft ride to the Glendale train station. Once again I arrive at the station with less than a handful of minutes to spare. I recline in my comfy Pacific Surfliner seat and read my book of the week, Replay, while hopeful party-goers en route to San Diego load onto the train at various stations. A March full of new jobs, cleanses, fights and family members has come to an end. Onto April.

Lake Tahoe with the Crew (Part 1)

My ears have been popping for 30 consecutive minutes. The temperature continues to drop and the wind intensifies. Misha gingerly drives along the edge of steep cliffs while I admire the snowcapped mountains filling up the horizon. Staring down is discerning, as a fall would be deadly. We turn a corner and are slapped in the face by the most mesmerizing body of water I’ve ever seen. Lake Tahoe glistens with countless crystals beneath the setting sun. The water is a deep blue like that of a newly polished azurite pendant. Misha and my brothers fall silent as we soak in the beauty of nature before us.

We arrive in the small town of South Lake Tahoe shortly after the sun sets. Our first stop is Misha’s family friend’s house, where Misha will be picking up his snowboard. Misha turns onto an unlit road, not noticing the black ice covering the pavement. The wheels spin wildly as they grasp for traction. Misha does his best to guide the struggling vehicle into a soft patch of snow. Pierce and Hugh exit the car and give it a shove, ejecting it from the ditch. Undeterred, Misha finds an alternate, safer route to the house. After loading his gear into the car and resting his snowboard atop Pierce and Hugh’s laps, Misha gets back into the driver’s seat and steers us to our home for the next week.

Parked along the snowy street, I open my car door to piercing cold air. The 4 of us rush through the cabin door and immediately turn on the fireplace. Relieved to be out of the below-freezing temperatures outside, we let warmth overcome us. A large, brown leather wrap-around couch, homey wooden furniture, and fluffy blankets and pillows make me feel comfy and relaxed. I envision a winter slumber approaching. But first, we must wait for the others guests to arrive.

In the meanwhile, we decide to rent ski equipment and purchase food. A car full of skis, ski poles, boots and $300 worth of groceries later we come home to a lively environment. Misha’s friends from Florida have arrived. Introductions are made. There is Steven – tall, dark and handsome. He sits roasting by the fire beside his girlfriend of 4 years, Jesse – a beautiful girl with long dirty-blonde hair and big green eyes. She appears filled with excitement. The couch is occupied by Jared, proudly wearing a full beard and beanie; evidently adjusting to the drastic change of climate. His girlfriend of 8 years, Jen, sits near him. She is a small girl with short black hair and a face full of Italian features. Jen struggles hiding her enthusiasm after seeing snow for her first time. Hugh and Pierce (who are referred to as “the Brothers” throughout the trip) introduce themselves to the crew and plop down on the couch, opposite of Jen and Jared. Feeling restless, they soon head to the kitchen where they pop open a few beers before immersing themselves in the backyard hot tub. They return 30 minutes later. Having not seen his friends in a good while, Misha stays awake catching up, while Pierce, Hugh and I all hop into a king size bed upstairs, like we used to as kids on Christmas Eve.

I wake up to an even colder day. Bundled up in unfamiliar winter clothes, we squeeze into my car filled with skiing and snowboarding equipment. A 40 minute commute later we arrive at Sierra Mountain for our first day of skiing. Pierce and Hugh jump out of the car and head straight for the blue and black runs. After changing into our gear, Misha and I meet up with Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen. Although Steven and Jesse have a year of experience and exhibit skill on the slopes, Jared and Jen are first-timers and don’t fare as well. While Misha and I wait in line to head up the bunny slope we see an out-of-control Jen unintentionally ski into the trees. For the next 10 minutes, Steven attempts to push a fear-stricken Jen back onto the slope. Agony occupies Jen’s face while confusion and determination fills Steven’s. Unwilling to wait any longer, Jared skies down the bunny slope for his first time. He exhibits impressive control and successfully pizza and French fries himself down the hill without falling.

After a short stay on the bunny hill, Steven, Misha, Jesse and I head for the more difficult, blue runs. Jesse and I anxiously hover at the top of the mountain, as Misha and Steven speed down. Slow and steady, but with some screams and falls, we make it to the bottom in one piece. Jesse and I agree that some easier, green runs are in order for the time being. The hours quickly pass and the weather becomes progressively colder. With frozen fingers and toes, we call it a day at 4pm.

Misha, Pierce, Hugh and I arrive home and eagerly cook a salmon, potatoes and asparagus dinner and eat it by the blaring fire. The others arrive from a dinner out and are ready for the casinos. Our cabin is conveniently located one mile away from the state-line of California and Nevada, which is an area surrounded by restaurants, bars, tourist shops and casinos. Jared and Steven, experienced gamblers, head straight to the Craps table with Misha tagging along to learn. The girls aren’t thrilled with this excursion as they are too familiar with their boyfriend’s obsessions with casinos. Not interested in watching a bunch of rowdy persons throw a dice against an enclosed felt rink, I walk with Pierce to the slot machines. Free drinks in hand, we crack up as Pierce proudly turns his $3.00 into $7.00. Exhausted from skiing and bored of gambling, Pierce, Jesse, Jen and I head out leaving the boys behind to gamble. Upon exiting the casino doors we stand face to face with a thick sheet of white. I look up at the falling sky, thinking there is no way the snow will stop anytime soon.

My prediction is right. I wake up the next morning to a winter wonderland. Gusts of wind swirl symmetrical snowflakes, covering everything in fresh powder. The forecast of a half-inch of snow was grossly wrong, as it snowed nearly a foot and a half during the night. Excited for the seemingly perfect day for skiing, everyone quickly gets dressed and heads outside for their cars. To my utter despair I find a $205 ticket atop my windshield for blocking the path of the snowplow. How is a group of kids from Georgia and South Florida (currently experiencing lows of 75 degrees) supposed to even know what a snowplow is? Let alone the fact that we can’t park on the streets on days it snows. We call the owner and ask her this exact question. She kindly offers to pay half the ticket.

Our spirits elevated, we begin our drive to the mountain. However, due to havocking winds and hazardous road conditions we are soon forced back into our cabins. While deliberating Plan B, Misha and his friends decide the perfect event would be an old tradition of theirs – Beerlympics (short for Beer Olympics). Beerlympics is a series of drinking games (some of which I’ve never heard of) between two teams. First team to 6 victories is crowned champion. We pick names out of a hat to split teams. Jesse, Pierce, Misha and I face off against Steven, Jared, Hugh and Jen. Jesse and Jared’s rivalry is by far the most entertaining part of the night. It all begins with a not-so-kind-hearted squid. What is a squid, you may ask. A squid is when an individual (person A) offers a high five or a knuckle pound to [Person B] by extending their open hand or closed fist. When Person B attempts to high five or pound knuckles with Person A, Person A pulls back his hands and waves wiggly fingers towards the face of Person B. This is exactly what Jared does to Jesse to begin the night. And Jesse does not live this down. The next 6 hours are filled with shotgunning (chugging a can of beer from a hand-made hole in the aluminum), flipping cups, throwing ping pong balls and carefree bickering. One, particularly enjoyable and intense game is called Downs. 8 beers are placed on the table (4 on each side) and a ping pong ball is thrown from one side of the table towards the opponents cans on the other side of the table. The opponent then races to retrieve the ball and place it atop the table while the shooting team chugs their beer. While playing this marvelous game, Jesse slides across the carpet causing rug burn and a bloody knee, Jen slams her head against the table, and Misha nearly castrates Steven by reaching between his legs to retrieve a scurrying ping pong ball.

With the competition nearing an end, and our team clawing towards a comeback, Jesse becomes even more ferocious towards her arch-nemesis, Jared. Screams and curses are commonly heard among the group’s laughter. Jesse is particularly thrilled when she sinks the last cup in beer pong, after Jared calls her out for holding on to the ball for too long. Jared, however, gets the last laugh as his team prevails 6 to 4, after an entertaining, neck-and-neck battle.

The tournament concludes at 11pm, at which time we stumble over to the casino for some late night gambling. A hangover setting in, and the day not having even ended, we decide to head home to our warm beds.

Waking up from a deep slumber, I realize its New Year’s Eve. My pounding head argues that I should remain in bed rather than celebrate the New Year, but I’m on vacation and it’s the holidays. Let the festivities begin.

Christmas in Sacramento

The drive from Las Vegas to Sacramento consists of 570 miles and takes over 8 hours to complete. A strenuous drive, to say the least. As we pack the car, Riley offers to drive. A pleasant surprise, as this allows me to write and maybe even catch some shut-eye. One hour later, the wheels of the car grind against gravel. I look up just as the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

“What happened?” I ask Riley.

“I’m tired,” Riley says, her eyes three-quarters closed.

And thus, I spend the next 8 hours behind the wheel.

After a 2 hour nap, Riley turns on the highly recommended Serial Podcast. We obsessively listen to it for the duration of our drive. An hour from our destination a thick fog sets in. Drivers slow down to 15 miles per hour below the speed limit as their visibility is limited to a few feet.

At exactly 9:30p.m. we park our vehicle beside a suburban house. We’ve arrived at Riley’s Aunt and Uncle’s house. We’re greeted Hubert Riley, Riley’s mom’s brother. A thin, fit man, with soft eyes and a genuine smile, Hubert welcomes us with open arms into his beautiful home, reminiscent of Spanish design. Christmas decorations hang from every nook and cranny. We take a seat in the kitchen as Hubert finishes up cooking pasta for his newly arrived guests. One by one the cousins flood the kitchen. The first is Anna, a sophomore at Georgetown University. Her dark brown hair, straight as an arrow, flows midway down her back. Her thin legs excitedly sprint over to her cousin and best friend. Then comes Caroline, the 2nd oldest – a junior in high school. With an eerily similar physique as Anna, it is no surprise these 2 are sisters. Having smelled the waft of the tomato sauce, Anna and Caroline’s little brother, Will, enters the kitchen. A thin boy, enjoying the joys and agonies of being a high school freshman, Will carries a sweet comb-over and a timid, yet pleasant smile, not unlike his father’s. The last of the 4 children, Stella, stumbles into the kitchen in her one-piece pajamas. She boasts golden blonde hair and the puppy-dog facial expression all children between the ages of 2 and 5 have mastered. Thumb in mouth, this 4 year old looks shyly at the big, tall man eating her family’s pasta.

“Hi,” I say to the cutest little girl I’ve seen in ages.

Stella takes a scared step backwards.

This may take a couple of days, I determine, succumbing to a simple wave to the toddler.

While still trying to memorize all the cousin’s names, the front door opens and Lisa Riley walks in. Tall, athletic and possessing straight, dark-brown hair, Lisa’s appearance makes it clear where the two oldest daughters obtained their physical features from. The now-packed kitchen transitions to the dining table, where Riley and I detail our travels to the 6 active listeners (one of whom is awake way past her bedtime). The Riley’s take turns asking questions and expressing their jealousy and support for our venture.

After consuming dinner and gulping down a cup of tea I can no longer keep my eyes open. I bid everyone a good night and I head to my room in the guest house, located opposite the pool.

I wake up to a murky Christmas Eve morning. Much of the morning and afternoon is spent helping the Riley’s set up for the Christmas Party taking place later that night. At 3pm, I attend my first Christmas Eve Service. Children and adults unite as one, through song and prayer. Many close their eyes as they feel their lord in every inch of their bodies. Feeling holier, we return to the house shortly before 5pm. Less than 2 hours later we hear the first knock on the door.

The guests start flocking in. They bring wine, hors d’oeuvres and entrees. We chip away at the various cheeses, jellies and crackers until the main course is prepared. The kids (of which Riley and I are included) form a buffet line. I fill my plate with fried onion mashed potatoes, vegetables, croutons and fresh crab. When I say fresh crab, I mean REALLY fresh crab. This succulent crustacean was brought by a friend of the Riley’s who proudly owns a renowned fresh food store. Just when I think that dinner can’t get any more delicious, I’m reminded that there is freshly cooked prime rib awaiting my consumption. I walk over to the kitchen counter and introduce a quarter pound slab of meat to my plate. Minutes later, my stomach is as happy as can be.

With digestion having begun, Lisa suggests a dance party in the living room. We move aside a few chairs and tables and gather in a circle, forming a serviceable dance floor. One of the kids whips out a small, wireless speaker, connects his iPhone to it using Bluetooth technology, and starts pumping the music. For the next 2 hours we dance, sing and laugh. There are 35 people attending this party and every single one lets loose at least a few dance moves. Two gymnastics-splits, multiple perfectly choreographed songs, and 35 pairs of sore calves later physical exhaustion kicks in and the music ceases. By 11p.m. the guests are gone and clean-up time has begun. Despite a seemingly endless supply of dirty dishes and trash, we clean the entire house in record time; even remembering to prep the living room for Santa’s looming arrival.

And lo and behold, Santa does arrive. I wake up Thursday morning to a surplus of gifts. However, my pile pales in comparison to Stella’s. She must have been particularly good this year. With wrapping paper and cardboard boxes comprising the majority of the living room floor and my stomach full from breakfast, it’s the perfect time to get some fresh air.

I arrive at the Shady Oaks disc golf course to a perfectly warm afternoon. Disc golf is a sport merging golf and Frisbee. Specially designed plastic discs are thrown from a concrete tee-pad, about the size of a door, towards a chain-linked metal basket, positioned anywhere from 100 to over 1,000 feet away. The purpose of the game is to make your disc into the basket in as few shots as possible. Two discs in hand, I start my round. At hole 4 I run into Rich and Freddie, two local disc golf enthusiasts. We agree to play the rest of the round together. Seemingly having an endless supply of marijuana, these two Cali natives light up a celebratory bowl after every successful hole. Two-thirds complete through this 18-hole course, we run into Jesse, an old friend of Freddie’s. Fire-orange bangs droop over Jesse’s pale blue eyes, as he joyously hugs his old friend, who he hadn’t seen in years. Delighted by the cloud of smoke forming around my two new acquaintances, Jesse decides to play the final 6 holes with us. To little surprise, Jesse also has a plentiful supply of weed, of which he makes use of liberally. My 3 friends walk in a blissful haze as we complete this enjoyable course full of gorgeous trees and calming nature. Officially being able to check California off my list of states I’ve played a round of disc golf in, I leave the park feeling accomplished.

The morning of Friday, December 26 is dedicated to exploring Sacramento. Riley and I do this in our favorite way – a jog throughout the city. Led by our tour guide, Hubert, we run 7 miles through suburban communities, public-living communities, railroad tracks, West Sacramento, Old Sacramento, malls and a massive hole in the ground, which will soon host the new Sacramento Kings arena.

At 5pm, the household increases by 2 as Riley returns from the airport with her little brothers, Pierce and Hugh. This being one of the few times I’m in the same room with all 3 siblings, I stare at each of the Smith’s debating who resembles whom more. Riley and Hugh’s golden brown hair and blue-green eyes seem to merge, while Pierce and Riley seem to have their noses and facial expressions chiseled by the same artist. With it already being past 8pm on the East Coast, we decide it’s a suitable time to pop open a few beers. An hour into catching up with the newly arrived guests, Riley and I light up the stove and oven in preparation for dinner. An Indian Pale Ale in hand, I begin cooking chicken, couscous and vegetables while Riley prepares the fresh kale. An hour later we’ve crafted one of our finest meals to date – a vintage Moroccan style feast.

Our moods elevated, Hubert, Pierce, Hugh, Riley and I decide to spend the night out on the town. We head downtown, where we hop from one watering hole to a second and then a 3rd. Targeting solely the local and craft brews, I have a delicious night. While Riley and Hubert grab a taxi around midnight, Pierce Hugh and I stay out till 2am, before getting dropped off at the house by a friend of Pierce’s, who he met in Croatia earlier in the year.

While Riley’s brothers wake up early to drive down to San Francisco, I spend Saturday catching up on sleep and reading. Just before sunset Hubert, Lisa, Anna, Stella and I head to a local nature park where we are surrounded by curious deer and spawning salmon. I learn much about Anna during this short hike, including her fear of deer. By the end of our walk, we’ve come within feet of so many does and bucks that Anna has no choice but to successfully face her fear. This meeting with the fresh outdoors mitigates my headache and livens me up for the Sacramento Kings basketball game taking place later that night.

While Riley stays home with the rest of the gals, Hubert, Will, Will’s friend (Jack), and I head to the 7:30p.m. tip-off between the New York Knicks and the Sacramento Kings. The game is a thriller, ending in a fantastic overtime victory by the home team. I watch 17,000 ecstatic fans yell, high-five and hug as their Saturday night is temporarily improved by the performance of their Kings. As with any competition, there is a losing team – and tonight (as is the case on most nights) it’s the Knicks. Will proudly tells Hubert and me about the verbal scuffle he and Jack had with the rowdy Knicks fan yelling obscenities from the seats above them.

I wake up Sunday morning with an extra spring in my step. I pack a single suitcase, eager to get on the road and see my best friend, Steven (who inspired me to go on this adventure), his girlfriend, Jesse, and my 2 friends, Jared and Jen, in Lake Tahoe later that evening. Riley and I sit in the living room, awaiting Riley’s brothers. Fashionably late [as Riley predicted], Pierce and Hugh arrive nearly 2 hours later than promised. The 4 of us jam-pack Riley’s vehicle and head north to the world-famous lake in Tahoe.