Friday, June 28, 2013

Payment BEFORE Poutine? (and no, it’s not what you think)


It really isn’t. But I’ll get to that in a moment… Let me start off by saying I had a fabulous trip to Montreal last week. I rode a Bixi for the first time (rent-a-bikes that we are now starting to see here in NYC courtesy of Citibank), I saw Penguins sleeping at the Biodome (it’s currently winter in the Southern Hemisphere and they apparently need their snooze time), and finally mastered saying “Merci” with the proper accent.

And of course no trip into international territory would be complete unless I fell in love… Oui oui… one man in particular won my heart.  His name is Chico and I met him while picnicking in the park:

Don’t we look cute together? Chico’s family warmed up to me immediately and allowed us to spend the day together. And what fun we had playing catch and laying in the grass! Together, we learned a new game—pétanque. It’s similar to bocce ball and it involves throwing balls on a rectangular playing field and getting them as close to the designated target as possible. Make sense? Probably not, but what can you expect from an American who can barely explain the rules of baseball?

And then there was Pierre… ooo la la… those Frenchmen get me every time. He was the shy, quiet type who doesn’t get out much. I decided to take him for a much needed day/night on the town in Montreal. Can't you see the look of joy in his eyes at finally getting out of the house?

Hmmmm... perhaps I'm the one who's overjoyed, while Pierre just has dilated pupils. As for my friends, while they were initially reluctant to let Pierre tag along, they eventually accepted him as part of the group:

Pierre made the journey with us via my backback to see the Penguins at the aforementioned Biodome. He was so excited to meet his fine-feathered friends, but unfortunately, there were not as excited to see him:

He's totally passed out! Not one penguin even lifted a wing to wave hello to Pierre. Sacré bleu! To cheer him up, my friends and I took him out for some beer, foosball and pool. You can see my friend Sue conferring with him on a pool shot:

But back to the poutine… What the hell is poutine, some of you are asking? Well, it was my last night in Montreal and I also wanted to know the answer to that question. My friend Mark had been raving about it since his trip to Montreal and basically told me not to return to the states unless I tried it. At the core, poutine is French fries, gravy and cheese. This, in and of itself, sounds delightful and delectable to my taste buds. But wait a minute… you can then add an assortment of meats and veggies to your dish! The possibilities are endless. What normally was something you ate at 3:00 in the morning when you were drunk in a diner began to sound like a legitimate meal. I mean, if I add chicken and mushrooms to my poutine, I’ve essentially hit the four basic food groups: meat, vegetables, bread and dairy. Voila!

My friend Mark recommended La Banquise as the quintessential place to try poutine:

With me, were two people from Montreal, two others from France and one American like myself. The server greeted us, but then disappeared for fifteen minutes before she came back. After taking our order, she disappeared again but I barely noticed. I was thrilled to be so close to finally sampling this Canadian casserole I had heard so much about! What I did notice, however, was the sudden reappearance of the server, who unceremoniously dropped our bill on the table. At first, I thought it might be some kind of joke. After all, we hadn't even gotten our food. Not only that, the server hadn't done anything other than take our order. Did she really think we should pay the bill and tip her in advance of our meal? 

I wondered if this was common practice in Montreal, but everyone around me (including the Canadians) was as surprised as I was. A few minutes later, the server returned and stood at the table until we paid the bill. Seriously. She did not walk away until she had all her money, even though our food had still not arrived. I was utterly shocked. This wasn't take-out service. We were sitting down at a table to enjoy a meal. Where I come from, you do not pay for your food in advance unless you’re at a McDonald's or a Starbucks.

I am actually a server myself, and perhaps that is why I took my treatment to heart. It should be noted that La Banquise is open 24 hours a day/7 days a week and probably gets their share of unsavory characters in various states of sobriety. That said, my friends and I should not be punished for drunken customers who "dine and dash." I want to be treated with the same respect I would give anyone that sat at one of my tables in my restaurant. It comes down to caring about your guests and giving them a good experience, whether you’re at a diner or a Michelin star restaurant. 

If nothing else, La Banquise should print their payment policies on their menu and/or have the servers clearly communicate it to their tables so everyone knows up front what the deal is. While I enjoyed my poutine very much, the service definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. Thankfully, there’s always alcohol available to wash any unpleasantness away…

As I made my journey home the next morning, I emailed the restaurant to let them know about our experience and the inappropriateness of our server’s behavior. (I have yet to hear back from them and suspect I never will.) I crossed the border without any incident and as I listened to music, I glanced out the window. Next to me, was a truck driver who had the following sign taped to his window, “Show me your tits, girls.” I guess that was his way of saying, “Welcome to America.” It wasn't exactly the "Welcome home" I expected, but I guess that's why it's called "The land of the free." And I wouldn't want it any other way.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Why I would suck as a CIA Agent

            In keeping with my last post about my dreams of being a Southern Belle (and how it’s about as likely as an elephant walking a tightrope), I thought I should confess to another secret yearning—to be a CIA Operative.

            The spark of desire was recently ignited via my newfound addiction to “Covert Affairs,” starring Piper Perabo as Annie Walker. Just witnessing this equally wholesome and sexy woman in action inspired visions of me wrestling some villain while wearing four inch spike heels and a business suit. (Yes, Piper does this on every episode. I’m not even sure she owns a pair of sneakers or comfortable shoes.) But could I ever measure up to this feminine yet powerful goddess?

            Perhaps I should start by explaining what enthralls me about being part of this elite group of stealth individuals:

1) Ability to kick someone’s ass. I don’t know about you, but I contemplate punching someone in the face at least once a week. It is only society’s conventions regarding acceptable behavior (as well as the possibility of getting arrested) that stops me. No problem in the CIA, folks. You are allowed to hit people… and you get to do it in the name of serving your country. I am mesmerized every time Annie Walker simultaneously takes down multiple bad guys while using nothing other than her own body to do so. Brilliant. I have yet to see Annie fire a weapon. She doesn’t even carry a gun, though to be fair I’m only on season 2. Perhaps soon I’ll see her whip out a semi-automatic and blast the bad guys to kingdom come.

2) Travel to cool places. Within a few months of working for the CIA, Annie already traveled to Switzerland, Paris and London. Sign me up, please! I just renewed my passport and have plenty of room for stamps!  

3) Nifty gadgets: I love toys. And the CIA is apparently full of them. Annie has an encrypted phone, (not even sure what that is, but I think it means no one can track it. It sounds super awesome, doesn’t it?), listening devices (in one episode she stuck something in her ear and it picked up voices a mile away—also good for those moments in civilian life when you’re paranoid someone is bad mouthing you), thingamajigs that can steal information from computers in a matter of seconds... The high tech equipment the CIA has at its disposal is endless and I’d like to check it out firsthand.

4) Hot operatives. Annie has behind-the-scenes backup in the form of Auggie. Oh, Auggie… you hot, HOT man. He is the perfect combination of nerdy/brilliant/sexy that makes my body temperature soar. If there’s such a thing as a sixteen pack, Auggie’s got it.  He was blinded in Iraq and spends much of his time in front of his brail keyboard assisting Annie with her missions. However, every so often Auggie makes it into the field, and when he does, oh-say-can-you-see the fireworks between him and Annie! How I’d love to throw back a few beers with him (as Annie does at their local watering hole in D.C.) and celebrate some military coup we’d prevented earlier that afternoon.

So, the question remains whether or not I have what it takes to be a part of this clandestine crew. The answer is… N-O. And here’s why…

1) Ability to kick someone’s ass. Ironically, it turns out the number one reason I want to be CIA is also the number one reason I can’t be CIA. First off, there is no way in hell I’m running in those spike heels. I have horrible feet and if I’m going to be chasing after bad guys, I need to wear running sneakers (Sauconys preferably). And as for the “kicking ass,” I’m not even sure I know how to make a proper fist or land a punch. And you can forget about discharging a firearm. Although Annie has yet to carry a gun, I figure it’s only a matter a time before her battles go beyond hand-to-hand combat. No, thank you. The only thing you’ll see me fire is a water gun at a pool party.

2) Bad liar. Think I could go on covert missions while letting my family and friends believe I work for the Smithsonian like Annie? Think again. I am a horrible liar. Entire monologues revealing my intimate feelings are written across my face for the entire world to see. My facial expressions are about as obvious as a fat kid's glee if he were trapped in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. If that’s not enough, my Jewish mother can account for my moment-to-moment whereabouts better than I can. She’s probably watching me right now. (Maybe she should be in the CIA instead.)

3) Ability to withstand torture. Nope. Not me. If I saw them coming at me with pliers to remove my teeth, I would instantly cave. The identities of my fellow agents as well as whatever secrets I might be carrying would be revealed faster than I could say “Please don’t!” and America’s safety would be compromised. I love my country, but I need my teeth to eat and a Jewish/Italian girl needs to do the latter on a fairly regular basis.

4) Ability to speak multiple languages. Annie knows a multitude of languages and accents. I’ve heard her speak Russian, Spanish, Italian, German, Portugese and some Turkish. I can barely speak English! I did, however, study Spanish for seven years in school, but I’m still stuck on those old dialogues they used to teach you at the beginning of every chapter in your Spanish book:
“¿Esta Susana in casa? Si, esta con una amiga. ¿Donde esta, en la sala? No, esta en la cocina.”
Anyone out there remember the KLM Spanish book series? I figured as much. So between my so-so English and kindergarten Spanish, I’m not winning any awards for being a linguistics scholar.

            Of course all of my assumptions are based on watching Annie Walker—a fictional character, on a fictional TV show. Perhaps being in the CIA isn’t the heart-stopping-thrill-ride I imagine it to be. If so, please don’t burst my bubble. Let me fantasize about being Annie’s sidekick and dream of saving our country together wearing our Giorgio Armani blazers and Christian Louboutin heels…

Sunday, June 9, 2013

I Dreamed a Dream… and Woke Up a Southern Belle

            Well, I didn’t exactly wake up a Southern Belle, but I certainly wanted to be one.  I admit it… I get a tingly feeling when I think about the South. Maybe it’s because I started reading Tennessee Williams plays when I was eleven years old, or obsessively watched the film adaptations. Is there anything hotter than Marlon Brando in his guinea tee bellowing, “Stella! Stella!” at the top of his lungs in the street? What about Paul Newman’s portrayal of the tormented “Brick” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?” Yummy.

And of course there’s “Gone With The Wind.” I wanted Tara to be my home… I wanted to swish around in those hoop skirts. How I wished I could make a beautiful green dress out of the curtains hanging in my windows like Scarlett O’Hara. Oh, to proclaim in a southern lilt, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” But with my luck, I’d end up looking more like Carol Burnett in her parody, “Went With The Wind,” where she came sweeping down the spiraling staircase wearing a green curtain with the pole still attached to it. 

Let’s face it—a Jewish, Italian (with some Puerto Rican thrown in) girl whose parents both hail from the Bronx doesn’t spell “Southern Belle.” I’m a true “Northerner” as my aunt’s Floridian (not the South I’m referring to by the way) boyfriend likes to call me. However, my folks did come from the South Bronx so perhaps I still have a chance? Nah, didn’t think so.

And having acquired numerous Southern friends over the years has only intensified my desire to be one of their "clan." There are certain things that are common to all of these women:
  1. Impeccable manners - These gals know exactly how to hold their napkins and dab their lips just so after they take a bite of food. The "Sirs" and "Ma'ams" flow from their mouths like a gentle stream. I always try to be polite and hold my knife and fork properly, but somehow I feel goofy and clumsy instead. The whole using your knife to gently sweep food onto your fork seems more difficult than taking the SAT's was for me.
  2. Always looks presentable - Southern ladies have perfect make-up and would never dream of leaving the house with a slovenly appearance. Then there's me, on the other hand, who regularly strolls down the street in my sweats with no make-up, looking like a vagabond.
  3. Never talks about the restroom - I'm not sure I've ever seen these women use the bathroom other than to check themselves in the mirror (see item #2). They probably wait until no one is looking and sneak into the stall while flushing continuously so no one will hear them "tinkle." (I think that's how they say "pee" in the South).
  4. Beautiful accents - There's something about a Southern lilt that sounds like music to my ears. Seriously. "Y'all," "Darlin'," "Fixin'"... yes, please! And everything they say is drawn out and a word like "Hey" becomes five syllables long: "Heeeee-yyyyyy!" New Yorkers are the opposite. We are always on the go (to where, I have no idea) and we want to grunt everything out as quickly as possible, sometimes combining several words into one: "Whaddya" or "Fuhgeddaboutit."
  5. Makes an insult sound like a compliment - This is probably my favorite one of all. Here's the trick... they tack a "bless your heart" onto the end of a sentence and it somehow lulls you into thinking they're saying something supportive instead of telling you that you're... well, fat. e.g. "Those pants are nice and snug on you, bless your heart." See what I mean? You end up thinking you look sexy in your tight jeans with your muffin top instead of like "ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag." And then, when they want to say something really insulting, they combine the "bless your heart" with a question. "You sure do date a lot of men, don't you, bless your heart?" (That's subtext for "You're a cheap whore who sleeps with everyone you meet.") When I try to make an insult sound like a compliment, it just sounds like... well, an insult. "Oh no, those pants don't look bad on you at all. You just need to get a bigger size." Yup, the foot goes right in the mouth every single time.

            Hmmmm…. I just know if I was a member of this select club of elegant ladies, I too would feel classy… more graceful and stylish. I want to sit on a swing on my veranda and drink sweet tea… I want a subscription to “Southern Living” magazine where I learn about the best spring flowers to plant in my garden… I want to learn how to make banana pudding and hush puppies… Oh to be a dainty, Southern Belle! In reality, it’s probably never going to happen, but one can always dream… and in dreams, anything is possible…

Saturday, June 1, 2013

An Open Letter to Anyone That Cares about the Aging

My grandfather, Bernard Liles, is going to be 101 years old on July 6th 2013—an extraordinary accomplishment for anyone. On April 24th, 2013, my grandfather received a “Notice of Proposed Involuntary Discharge or Transfer” from Maplewood Park Place in Bethesda, Maryland, the senior living facility he has been living in since it opened in 1995. How completely unextraordinary.  Moreover, it’s downright cruel and unconscionable.

During his residency at Maplewood, my grandfather, or “Papa” as I called him throughout my life, served on the Co-op Board (the same board that’s now threatening to toss him out on his you-know-what). He also played piano every Saturday afternoon for approximately ten years for the building’s high tea. Between my grandfather and his wife, Doris Levin, the pair contributed an estimated one million dollars to Maplewood for their living expenses and care.

So why would Maplewood want to throw my grandfather out, you ask? Well, before we get into that atrocity, let me first tell you a few things about Papa’s remarkable life.  Like many people in the depression, he was born into poverty on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1912. Papa was forced to go to work at ten years old to help support the family. When he was older, he worked full-time while attending CCNY and then NYU at night. Papa managed to read three newspapers almost every day—The New York Times, The Miami Herald and The Washington Post—the three places he lived throughout his life. He also played the piano by ear. Growing up, I loved listening to him play and when I'd ask him what song he was playing he'd shrug and say, "I don't know." Is it any wonder I learned to play the piano and eventually pursued a career in the arts?

            But what amazes me most about my incredible grandfather is his unfaltering positive outlook and will to live. When he was about 33 years old, he was diagnosed with melanoma. His doctors told him he had one month to live—he refused to accept it. Even when they amputated his leg and hip, he was back at work in a month and wearing an artificial limb in eight weeks. And in those days, artificial legs weren't light and pliable. They were stiff and as heavy as an anvil! My grandfather survived his brush with death, and went on to lecture other amputees about how to live a normal life. I once commented how hard it must be to only have only one leg and my grandfather said, "What was I going to do? Throw myself off the bridge? And every cloud has a silver lining." I asked, "What's the silver lining in losing your leg?" My grandfather smiled and said, "I can park wherever I want." Leave it to my grandfather to find something good in missing a limb. (It should be noted Papa lost a kidney to cancer a mere seven years later.)

            My grandfather had another brush with death at 92, when he had a stroke. Once again, the doctors wrote him off. I remember being in his hospital room and a doctor told us to say our goodbyes. But he clearly didn't know my grandfather. He pulled through, as he did when he was younger, and I wasn't surprised in the slightest. (The aforementioned doctor subsequently apologized.)

            But the stroke and his age took its toll and slowly over the years, he's transitioned from walking with a cane to permanently needing a wheelchair. There are days he doesn’t say very much. However, there is never a day he does not have a smile on his face or a twinkle in his eyes. He simply loves being alive. 

            But living as long as my grandfather comes with a price—and I’m not speaking metaphorically. The price tag I’m referring to costs about $5,800/month for my grandfather’s ongoing care. His income does not fully cover Maplewood’s monthly fees. My family has tried to make a financial arrangement with the facility to no avail. Maplewood wants my grandfather gone—yesterday. If Papa were to get sick, Maplewood intended on sending him to a local hospital that could then transfer him to any nursing home willing to accept him. Doing so, of course would enable them to wash their hands of my grandfather for good and not have to admit him back into Maplewood ever again. They don’t care considering his age, delicate health (he receives nutrition and hydration through a feeding tube) and physical condition he might die in transit. And let’s not forget about all the money he’s paid to them over the years as well. (Remember the one million dollars I mentioned earlier?) They don’t care about any of that. Maplewood would be rid of Papa—that’s all they care about.

            Who does care, however, is the medical staff at Maplewood. I would like to take a moment to thank them for the loving care and support they have given to my grandfather over the years, and I don’t blame them in any way for his current predicament. I want to be clear it’s the faceless (and nameless) board I’m so angrily pointing my finger at. Even now, my family still has no clue who these people are that comprise the so-called board.

This board—whoever they may be—is currently petitioning for the assignment of a temporary guardian for my grandfather’s property (and by “property,” they mean his money).  Hmmm… do they not realize he already has a legal guardian? My mother, Joan Laura, and my aunt, Sherry Liles, are available to speak on my grandfather’s behalf. Why would they want to assign a guardian for Papa when he clearly already has people who can answer for him? Is it possible that a stranger (suggested by Maplewood), who has no emotional connection to my grandfather, is more likely to side with the board in removing my grandfather from Maplewood? Inquiring minds, myself included, would like to know the answer to that question.

Something is rotten in Bethesda, and it’s not the bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-495.  No, what stinks is the mistreatment of a courageous and honorable man, who simply wants to live out the rest of his days in a place where he feels safe and secure… a place he now considers his home. Papa came from a generation where people knew the difference between right and wrong. His moral compass was always pointed in the direction of what was RIGHT, and it sickens me when I think about what is happening to him. Maplewood should borrow my grandfather’s compass, because it’s clear they lost theirs… if they ever had one, that is.

I am asking anyone that reads this to please forward this on if you know anyone that can lend a helping hand to my family and my grandfather. Share it on your Facebook pages, your websites... you name it. Let's get the word out about a dilemma that many of us could be potentially facing in the coming years as people live longer lives, while not having the necessary funds to sustain that life. I appreciate your support and kindness.