My Thoughts on Inauguration Day

Just hours away from the inauguration and the official oath of office of the country’s 45th president, I join many in a mix of feelings of shock, sadness, uncertainty and fear. I think most, regardless of political affiliation, can understand that. It happens anytime there’s a big change, a seemingly sudden shift.

What differentiates these emotions, my emotions, from mere feelings of change is the strong divisiveness, blame, meanness and in some cases, sheer hate, that has permeated the past 18 months. While I was concerned and scared of what a Trump presidency — hypothetical and far-fetched at the time — could mean to me (an immigrant, Hispanic woman, military wife; the list goes on…), I’m more disconcerted today not by his being elected (parts of America were heard loud and clear) but by what his election has already begun to do and can ultimately do for the American ethos. This is a country built on faith, hope, perseverance and freedoms. Unity.⠀⠀

We have begun to see, in harsh recent rhetoric, an erosion of that togetherness, of that inherent understanding that for better or worse, we’re in this together, bound to this country by residency, citizenry and/or heritage — hopefully, too, by love. Should we  choose to forget that — to destroy that — not only will Trump’s agenda of racism, sexism, bigotry, et. al will have won, but so will the groups, both domestic and foreign, that seek to rattle our foundation, leaving us weak and vulnerable.⠀⠀⠀⠀

These are our States of America. Not by birth but by choice did I claim citizenship in this beautiful country, and I’ll be damned if I allow myself to be belittled by philosophies that are not my own and that are not this nation’s simply because of one man’s role. These are our UNITED States of America. We can and we shall protect and preserve our inalienable rights. We must.

Rather than spew out hateful words, rather than dwell on misery (which, yes, does love company), rather than harvest fear and disdain, rather than perpetuate divisiveness and accusations, harness your desire for a truly greater America by doing what we do best, as proven generation after generation: come together in times of adversity, show what we’re made of when it seems there’s little conviction left. Consider this  my message to the American people (or something like that), an idealistic one perhaps.

Find your space in this vast democratic system and spread hope from your corner of the world, in whichever productive way you feel most comfortable. I have friends marching on Saturday in D.C., others participating in civic groups and local campaigns; the opportunities to get involved and outside of the social media bubble and above the underbelly blogs, thanks to this magnificent country of ours, really are endless, and they’re really quite powerful when we’re part of them together. This afternoon, as the new President is sworn in, let’s find some space in our hearts in which we can say, “Let’s do this. Let’s try our very, very best to do this.”

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[Photos taken during a visit to D.C. last summer]

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American Dreamin’

Today, March 29, 2016, I became a naturalized U.S. citizen. I chose to become one. and here I am! After 20+ years of living in the States, I finally got the opportunity to submit the appropriate paperwork (over the course of a year, but who’s counting?), hand over all necessary fees, go through biometrics appointments, pass the corresponding examinations (with a perfect score, may I boast) and present myself in front of a district judge to recite the Oath of Allegiance, loudly and proudly, in the company of dozens of others fulfilling the same choice — saying, “Yes, America, yes I choose you.”

The ceremony was more emotional than I had imagined. Seeing dozens of people gathered to take the very same step, regardless of origin, reminded me how truly colorful and multifaceted this country’s cultural tapestry is. How special. 47 countries were represented in that room today – from Argentina to Zimbabwe, Brazil to Ghana, the Philippines to Vietnam, England to Jamaica and every corner of the world in between. As I thought of their distinct journeys, their hopes, unknown to me, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own — of my parents, their sacrifices, their hopes and their pursuits…all of which have led me here, to that very moment. “I, Valeria Lento Palmertree… will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies.”

When I was a child,  my parents took the first step in the journey that ultimately opened up the winding roads ahead, the ones that have led me to my own paths and realizations. Today, I didn’t just realize my own desire of becoming an American Citizen. By way of that accomplishment – call it what you will – I checked off my parents’ ultimate vision. They were in that courtroom today – of that, I am certain.

As you think of your own journeys and hopes and visions for the future, I hope you’ll take a pause to give thanks for the freedom to walk them and pursue them — and do so, every single day. We throw our gratitude for freedom around in such cliches these days. Consider what it would signify to choose that freedom, to be given the opportunity to pursue it and accept it and declare it loud and proud. We are American.

As an elderly Cuban lady so excitedly and emotionally proclaimed upon receiving her Certificate of Naturalization today: “Finally! Finally!”

Dancing On…

Growing up, I didn’t always understand my dad. He was stern and strict and strong-willed and much too serious about everything. He didn’t always make smart decisions, and I wasn’t always a fan of his actions.

But he was my dad, my one father, and as I went from girl to woman, the resent turned into sympathy and ultimately into understanding for the life he led, for the battles he fought and how hard he worked to provide new opportunities for my brother and me, even at the cost of his own success.

When my mom unexpectedly passed away two years go, I finally saw my dad’s vulnerability, his weakness and his undying love for the woman who sacrificed everything for her family, and for the past two years, I have finally understood him. As his caretaker, I got to know him in a different light, and my heart opened up a space for him that had for too long been choked up.

I finally get him, and I now know he’s where he wanted to be, in the arms of my mom where he was always safer and stronger.

Today, I’m imagining Heaven as an all-you-can-eat parrillada where he gets to play pitmaster and use unlimited vats of chimichurri; where red wine is flowing and tarantella is on loop; where Mami is dancing, timidly; and dad is smiling and boasting about having taught her how.

Dance on, my loves. ❤ Cheers!

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Wanderlist 2016

Well, the cat is out of the bag, just in time for the New Year. I’m so thrilled to have been asked to be a Travel Contributor for Electrify Mag! My first feature for them (an interview with travel photog Marianna Jamadi, highlighting Nicaragua) will appear in the Spring 2016 issue (which will hit the shelves in March), but for now, I leave you with our Wanderlist for 2016 (my picks: Copenhagen and Kyoto). Check it out at www.ElectrifyMag.com and stay tuned for more on travel, culture and beyond.

Happy travels (and writing) to all! And a huge and heartfelt thanks to all of you who read my words. ❤ Can’t wait to bring you even more of them in 2016. Cheers!

*header photo credit: Moyan Brenn, Electrify Magazine

So This Is Christmas…

I recently stumbled upon an old blog post I wrote four years ago (back when I was still writing on Tumblr and not really sharing it with anyone). What a different reality Christmas 2011 was, in so many ways. I never thought that it could change, not that soon, certainly not that drastically.

Today, I’m reminded, more than ever, of all of those things I’ve held so dear and that for so long have defined Christmas to me, and I’m comforted by knowing I’ve always been most touched by and grateful for finding the simplicity of the season.

As I get ready to celebrate Christmas in my own home, in the company of my brother and my sis-in-law, as I honor my Mami by cooking up some of my lifelong Navidad favorites (probably waaaaay too much food for three!), as I pray for my dad’s strength through his battle with dementia, as I give thanks for parents-in-law an ocean away yet so warmly and closely connected, as I pray for my husband’s prompt and safe return from overseas, as I receive messages from family and friends around the world, I know that this is still Christmas, that the essence of the season is alive and well.

And so, in true Valeria fashion, I leave you with these written thoughts — even more resounding today than in 2011, perhaps.

MERRY CHRISTMAS. FELIZ NAVIDAD. BUON NATALE. ❤

Written Dec. 24, 2011:

In one of my favorite Christmas-themed films of all time, Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle himself states:

“For the past 50 years or so I’ve been getting more and more worried about Christmas. Seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.”

That was in 1947, when things that went faster and looked shinier and cost less paled in comparison to all that’s available to us today. Yet, it seems the pattern of a materialistic culture has remained disturbingly timeless.

I stopped “believing” in Santa Claus at age 10 on my second Christmas in the U.S., when my parents were forced – by a financially difficult situation – to inform their wide-eyed Christmas-enthusiastic daughter that Santa would likely disappoint her that year. How does one inform their child that they simply cannot afford to play “Santa” in the same manner as the other “Santas” who were fulfilling her peers’ Christmas wish list? Without a doubt, my love for my parents grew exponentially at that very moment.

Every Christmas since has thus been about nothing to do with gifts and everything about enjoying time with my parents and friends. Because our family is divided between Argentina and Italy, long gone are the days of huge family gatherings, delightful homemade treats, and in-person visits from Santa, yet we’ve managed to form a new scaled-back tradition of simply being together.

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Navidad in Buenos Aires (1991)

This year, as I reflect on Christmases past, I can’t help but smile at every single one of them, knowing that they’ve been perfectly perfect in their own imperfect way. And I can’t help but ponder, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

When the gifts are gifted and unwrapped, when the tree is stowed, when the lights are turned off, and Santa heads back to the North Pole, what are we truly left with?

At Christmastime and at every other time, I challenge us to think about the essence of the season – whatever you may perceive it to be. I challenge us to take a moment (or several moments) of silence away from the chaos of holiday shopping and from checking things off our lists to simply be.

Be grateful. Be kind. Be healthy. Be merry.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!
FELIZ NAVIDAD!
BUON NATALE!

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On Thanksgiving, an Ode to November

When I was little, the looming of November always excited me. As a Nov. 1 baby, I considered the entire month to be mine (can you blame me?). I welcomed it and owned it. At the beginning of the year, I liked to flip through calendars at the store to make sure I was okay with the chosen image for November. The details of the month were important. It was my month, after all.

When I married Sean on Nov. 27 just a day shy of three years ago, I had even more reason to love November, to claim the month as my own, from the first week to the last. Throw the Thanksgiving holiday into the mix and the best Florida college football rivalry into the lineup (go Gators), and my month was turning out to be what birth-month dreams are made of!

…Until my mom passed away on Nov. 24, just three days before Sean and I celebrated our first anniversary on Thanksgiving week. I knew November would never be the same.

I considered the ironies, the juxtaposition of life and death and new beginnings and gratitude — was this a joke? Could I pick a new month, please? Could I start over? Could I just make November go away?

Nope. November rolled back around. I turned 30. Sean and I turned two. My mom was gone. Again, it came. I turned 31. Sean and I are approaching three. She’s still gone.

I’m unsure of how to give thanks. Last year was experimental. I was guarded in showing happiness (could I be happy? should I be?). I certainly have lots to be grateful for in my marriage, in another year of life, in accomplishments and good health and memorable moments — but how do you show gratitude and happiness when your heart is in mourning, when you’re grieving so deeply, you’re not even sure gratitude and happiness can be a thing anymore?

I cried. I laughed. I celebrated and mourned. I wrote and talked. Then, I cried some more. And I smiled when I felt like smiling, and I sulked when I felt like sulking. I embraced the full spectrum of my emotions, the full swath of highs and lows that could be crunched into one month, and I accepted the vulnerabilities and inconsistencies that came with it, with allowing myself to embrace the entirety of November — from its happy beginnings and sad endings, to new promises and stories cut too short — and accept the reality of what November symbolizes now, to the kickass testament of strength and resilience it has the potential to be.

Today, on Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful to be able to look November in the eye, and say, “You’re still mine. With all of your joys and your disillusions, with all of your beginnings and endings and lessons. You’re scarred and tried but true. Thank you.”

Today, as the month wraps up, I feel not the need to write a post about gratitude or about grief or about age or marriage. This post is about Life. I’m thankful for life and everything it entails. November, by that definition, is full of it. Today, I embrace it, I succumb to it. I’m made stronger and wiser and kinder because of it.

I’m thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

When Grief Meets Gratitude

Losing my mom hasn’t been easy. The grieving process has been complicated and exasperated by things beyond my control. Had you asked me as a child — heck, just 2 years and a day ago — to name my biggest fear, I would’ve said, “losing my mom.” I was always terrified of being motherless. I had no reason to fear her departure. She was never sick. She was youthful and radiant and playful and present, always present.

Until she wasn’t.

I’ve tried to grieve efficiently and constructively. When people tell me I’m “strong,” I tell myself it’s not so much strength as it is stubbornness. I have to be okay. There’s no other option. Clearly, life is short, and days can’t be wasted. My mom would say sadness and fears would fade quicker if we sang them away. We both sang often. As a child, I sang, then wrote, then song-wrote, and my mom, always the equally stubborn optimist, egged me on. We overcame a lot, the two of us, and we had the songs to show for it.

It dawns on me, then, that the efficiency and constructive nature of my grieving are not all mine to claim, that the strength that has enabled me to sing and write and be stubbornly strong these past two years is shared with my mom. In such fashion, I thought it’d be most appropriate to — rather than focus on my loss and on my grief over her passing — commemorate her way of living and celebrate my gains from the radiant memory she left behind.

On Thanksgiving week, it seems most timely to share my gratitude for who she was, for what she gave me, for how she raised me to be, for her lessons and her immeasurable love. I’m thankful for:

Her Dedication to Family.
My mom loved family. They were the protagonists of every story she shared, and she ensured the whole bunch was placed at the center of ours when my brother and I were growing up in Buenos Aires. When we moved to the U.S. in the early 90s, she kept them present. She made sure we never forgot where and whom we came from. Through calls, photos and now, with the amazing real-timeliness of technology, she kept us all close and kept traditions alive. Despite being miles away from our roots, we had the honor of being part of the whole — what a joy that has been. I cherish it with my being and will strive to pass on those close ties to my children and theirs, if I’m ever so fortunate.

Her Sense of Class and Fashion and Humility.
She never had much. She didn’t graduate high school and never had the chance to own her dream home (or a piece of land, for that matter). When I was 13, I promised her a diamond ring when I “make enough.” I never got around to deliver on that promise. Diamond rings and education lacking, she was the classiest lady I know. She taught me the importance of well-manicured nails and a “pop of turquoise” and made Kmart and JCPenney duds (her go-tos) look like a million bucks. With her candidness and vulnerability, she made anyone in her presence feel like a million bucks, too. Those of you who had the pleasure of knowing her also know that to be true.

Her Love of Music and Colors and Dogs and Cooking.
I am my mother’s daughter, after all… She sang her heart out (I wanted her to keep on singing), and she let me sing to my heart’s content, even when my songs of choice were not by the likes of ABBA and Paul Anka — “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” will now forever be etched on my heart. Growing up, I lived in the kitchen, by her side, observing, tasting, mixing, learning, storytelling. She fed my soul in ways I’d only be able to recognize many years later. So many kids grow up defying the traces of their parents in them. I’m a proud and solid reflection of her — music-chasing, food-craving, blue-loving, dog-obsessed crazy person that I’ve grown up to be.

Her Transparency.
This trait is hard to describe, but let’s just say you could look directly into my mom’s soul by simply looking into her eyes. She was terrible at surprises. If I ever had any doubts about anything, I’d look her in the eyes; they’d smile; and I’d know. I think it’s this pureness and realness that made her so loved by so many and allowed her light to shine through. Two years after her passing, I still feel that light here.

Her Kind Heart.
She was selfless, generous, loving, giving and always appreciative — sometimes to a fault, I’d tell her. She was definitely taken advantage of by some; it infuriated me every time. “What goes around comes around,” she’d console me. If there’s a life beyond this one, I know she’s reaping some beautiful rewards. If I grow up to be a quarter of the kind soul she was, I’ll feel like a pretty accomplished person. I have a lot to aspire to.

Her Smile and Her Laughter.
Genuine. Infectious. Always-present. At her worst, she’d smile. At her best, she’d laugh and laugh… sometimes I hear that laugh coming out of me. It’s reassuring. Even in the ICU, she had a smile to give her doctors and her nurses, who still remember her by it (I know, because they tell me. How wonderful is that?). When she passed away, we asked people to write memories of her in a journal for us. A handful of neighbors my brother and I had never met, from the building in which my dad and her lived, wrote about her “beautiful smile,” her ability to connect with them in the elevator every single day despite not always having the full English vocabulary with which to carry the conversation. The power of a smile. You think about that…

Her Constant Motivation.
She always wanted me to be better, smarter, more confident, better traveled, healthier and kinder than her. When I’d ask her about her dreams — many of which were literally left in Buenos Aires the day she and my dad made the decision to bring us to the U.S. — she’d say her dream would be to see us (my brother and me) live out ours.  By motivating me, respecting me and inspiring me, she propelled me to be a better person. She still does. In fact, now more than ever, her motivation guides me. I have a hefty order to carry out: to live my life in a way that would help make her dreams come true. I’m on it.

Her Strength.
I’ve learned strength comes in many different forms and sizes. I always knew my mom to be strong and determined. She faced and overcame a lot of obstacles. She always held herself (and us) together. But her strength roared loudest during her most silent time. For two months in the ICU, she demonstrated a fortitude I once thought unimaginable, a resilience that carried us through the hardest and most painful months of her life, of ours. She, from a bed, kept us calm and at ease, assuring us that all would be okay. I’m grateful beyond words for the strength she showed during that time, because it’s that strength, which she displayed during her darkest days, that exemplified who my Mami was, the kind of resilient spirit she left behind. No words will do her strength justice, so I will leave it at that. Those of you who were with her during those awful months know the scope of that strength and what it meant to be witness to it.

And just like that, gratitude trumps grief, I’m sure.

Gracias, Mami. ❤
RIP. 11.24.13.

What Being “Foreign” Taught Me About Being Foreign

I still remember the feeling. I can’t remember what I was wearing, although the little stuffed bunny I clenched in my arms is still clear as day (and safely tucked away in my attic). My grandma had gifted her to me, dressed in a polka-dotted red dress, to remind me that even when I couldn’t hug her, bunny would be there to remind me we weren’t all that far away. At eight, your world feels so small and yet so incomprehensively big, as those escalators did when I came off my very first flight and descended to the Miami International Airport. I distinctly remember not being able to make sense of the signs, as my mom held my little brother’s hand and my dad looked attentively down at his notes, scribbled on a leather-bound notebook. While I knew we were moving, I didn’t realize the implications of that type of move, one requiring a nine-hour flight, and countless luggage and countless items left behind. As we drove off toward our new home, we passed the iconic “Welcome to Miami Beach” sign, and little did I realize then what a deeper meaning that sign would take.

At first, everything felt so much like a vacation that I had few reasons to focus on what had changed. There’s such beauty in the resilience of a child, and yet, such an innocence, such potential to be impacted by so much. My first realization that while this was our new home, it was going to be a long while for it to replace my home, came on my first day of school. Walking into a classroom of eager and curious eight-year-olds was like being dumped into a pool of ice water. My parents enrolled me in a school that did not have an ESOL program, so there I was, immersed in English-speaking classes without a single reference of what it all meant and few kids I could ask for help. Looking back, it was probably the best thing to happen to me, since I was forced to adapt quickly and picked up English seamlessly, albeit with a lot of frustration and tears, but I digress.

I had never felt “foreign” until then, and now that label was beginning to define me. To these kids, I was foreign. To this new culture (at least as encompassed in a third-grade classroom), I was, seemingly, an oddity. I’d go home and explain to my mom how weird I was for bringing a full pasta dish for lunch and for having perfectly wrapped notebooks (no one wraps their notebooks here, mom!) and for quoting Topo Gigio and not knowing anything about Sesame Street. Some kids even questioned why I was blonde and how I could possibly have green eyes when my skin was so tan after just a few hours in the sun. In their defense, I suppose they had an “image” of what foreign should look like, and I didn’t fit it.

Those years marked a chapter of growth, a coming into my own in terms of a new identify of sorts. I was foreign, and being identified as such taught me about who I was and who I would become. Owning that part of me has led to 30 years of a life I’m proud of and an upbringing I wouldn’t trade for the world, no matter how weird it seemed to others at times.

1. I’m Quirky – and a Great Conversation-Starter.
Inevitably, I’ll sometimes reference things from my childhood that are, well, foreign to others. When I first taught my college roommate one of Topo Gigio’s many songs and dances, she laughed for days (but in turn, now calls me Topo nearly 10 years later). I still mispronounce certain words and will never, ever understand the difference between a long A and a short A, nor why K is silent but H is not, and it wasn’t until college that I learned that the phonetic sound of salmon and almond are quite different (thanks, Kate!). It makes for interesting conversations, good laughs and in many occasions, fun conversation-starters with strangers who pick up on my foreignness.

2. Food Is the Way to My Heart.
I grew up in Buenos Aires, with a half-Argentine/half-Italian mother and a full-blooded Southern Italian father who has pasta sauce (and red wine) running through his veins, which meant every Sunday was a formal pasta feast, during which my great-aunt would roll up gnocchi on the dining room table, as my loud-mouthed aunts and uncles took turns at the giant pot, reducing the tomatoes to their sweetest taste, adding in garlic (always more, always more) and shredding parmesan cheese as a side rather than a condiment. My grandma, born in Catalunya, would make dulce de leche from scratch and always have something sweet to follow every meal, which naturally was followed by espresso (sometimes topped with cream). Because of this, I’m the least picky eater in the world and have found food to be the surest way to expose myself to other foreign cultures – a delicious discovery! Today, I’m a lean, mean empanada-making machine, and it has become the way in which I pay tribute to my mom every time I cook for friends.

3. Family Means Everything to Me.
Because I’ve spent most of my life living far away from my affectionate and vivacious extended family, I’ve built a really strong network of friends who have become like family here in the States, complete with friends of my parents who have become second parents to my brother and me in their own right. Along the way, I’ve even discovered and connected with extended family living in the U.S. and more than ever, I’ve found ways to be close to my family in Argentina and Italy through the beauty of technology, helping me feel like a well-integrated piece of that hearty whole.

4. I See the World through Technicolor Glasses.
I often wonder what the world would look like to me had I never been brought out of the one I knew. There’s a wanderlusting spirit that runs deep within and makes me appreciate the multicolored tapestry of the world. Because of this, my network of friends is brilliantly colorful, representing the Philippines, Cuba, France, Venezuela, Colombia and the U.S., to name a few. I couldn’t imagine it not being this way, and being the Argentinian in the group provides a mutually vibrant sharing of thoughts, customs and food, lots of food. When I married my husband (and his German-Polish ancestry), I vowed to someday raise our family in just as diverse of an environment (he’s already taking Spanish lessons by way of Rosetta-Stone).

5. Aiming for Achievement Is a Way of Life.
My mom used to tell me I had always been a really wide-eyed and inquisitive child, so when she and my dad made the decision to move us to the U.S. in the early 90s, she knew deep in her heart that I would ultimately take to the change really well and make the most of the opportunities and the challenges that arose. Looking back, I never knew there was an option otherwise. Seeing all that my parents went through to get here, to build a life for us here with the hope that it would be better than theirs propelled me to be the best version of myself imaginable. I knew that despite my parents setting the foundation, if I was to make anything of myself, I would have to do it on my own accord – pursuing, excelling, accomplishing and earning my way through the world. It was that mindset that allowed me to become the first in my immediate family to graduate high school, the first to go to college and the first to unimaginably pursue a graduate degree in, ironically, communication in a language that was once as foreign as I must have been to some of those kids back in that classroom 22 years ago. And as life would have it, that foreign girl became the epitome of her parents’ very American dream.

Because I don’t know whether I would’ve learned all of this not being deemed foreign, I can only be nothing but grateful for the experiences – the bumps, bruises and beautiful surprises – that have popped up along the way since I adopted and accepted that definition of myself. Ultimately, I’ve learned there’s really nothing all that foreign about being foreign, and perhaps that has been the most grounding discovery of them all.

An Ode to Food (for It Feeds My Soul)

I remember my first sips of wine, not because they were so memorably delectable but because they were taken with such pride and given with such love. In houses filled with laughter, loud conversations and pots of pasta to serve more than the several families in the room, wine glasses were filled to the brim, always red, smiling lips and teeth tinted with satisfaction of the soulful kind. I was five, I think, maybe six, when my dad offered to dip my bread (Italian, of course) in his glass. “For me?” I sheepishly pondered as I excitedly bit down on a morsel of dough-meets-Malbec. I was delighted.

Before you go judging, you should know that across South America and Europe, it’s not uncommon for kids to take sips of their parents’ wine, which is always accompanied with seemingly endless charcuterie boards and plenty of carbs. The presence of wine is a warm accompaniment to the ambiance, an instrument for hosting and greeting and toasting.

Saturdays were largely spent outdoors, with the adults grilling somewhere, while us kids played futbol or hide-and-seek, then chased each other with water balloons. Grilling began three hours prior to the actual meal, since the men of the family – led by my dad – had to meticulously prepare the fire, just right, always perfect, the end-meal always a celebration, complete with a round of applause and some chimichurri and homemade fries and salad and a glass of Malbec. On really lucky days, my uncle Quintino would cut up some of his homemade sopresata and pour glasses of his grappa for everyone. Cheers to that! Sundays were devoted (devoted) to pasta. As my aunts and grandma prepared the gnocchi on the long kitchen table, flour fell to the floor, like snow (I imagined, having never seen it). If we behaved, we’d have the honors of marking the gnocchi with a fork before they were dropped into boiling water. I was usually good enough to get the honors. 😉 Then, we ate – in the company of at least a dozen cousins, aunts, uncles and neighbors, all of whom stayed over for the mandatory futbol match and siesta, then proceeded to ask for dessert as though they could possibly still be hungry. Flan/dulce de leche/helado/membrillo/tiramisu it was. Sundays were idyllic, really. Throughout the week, afterschool, Mami waited for us with a hot oven, always baking something sweet for “la merienda” (afternoon snack), lemon pound cake, medialunas, pepitas, facturas, alfajores… How sweet those moments were. Her specialties – milanesas, empanadas, tartas and ensalada rusa – were always a staple, and we took for granted being able to request them on a whim. How I wish I had taken my time with them (“Chew each bite 15 times,” she’d say); why did I hurry up those meals? How much I’d be willing to pay for them now…

When we moved to the States, my parents attempted with such pride and gusto to keep some of those traditions going – sips of wine for the children aside – and I never realized just how much preserving those moments would end up preserving such a huge part of myself.

Gatherings here were different, despite my parents’ efforts, but they gave us so much comfort, so much warmth and so much acceptance during a period of time that could’ve felt so lonely and so foreign – and likely did for my mom, who left her dear Buenos Aires at 46 with nothing but our teeny hands in hers and a dream that our future would one day be far better and far more joyful than hers.

Perhaps they knew then what they were doing, maintaining traditions, keeping our culture and our family present and alive, filling our bellies with the flavors of our being, granting us a sense of self in the most delicious way. But I had no idea. We never do, do we? When we’re kids? We take so much of our life for granted, everything happening as it always has. Why would we ever imagine it any other way?

It wasn’t until very recently that I realized just how special my upbringing was, how incredibly lucky I was to experience food and culture in that way, to associate so many of my fondest memories with herbs, flour, dough, sweets, wines, grills, meats, recipes passed down generation to generation… what a huge part of my being they have come to be – sometimes unnoticeably so, but always so present, always just a whiff of pasta sauce or Spanish tortilla away from being dug up from the crevices of my mind and coming up in the form of a smile, red-stained lips and teeth and all.

I feel so very full.

Happy 5th Anniversary to the Best Guy I Know!

Five years ago, after a couple of months of talking, texting and thinking, I finally accepted an “official” first date with Sean. After ending a long and serious relationship, I didn’t feel quite ready to date, but he insisted I give him a chance, and he seemed to deserve it. So, I did what surprised no one who knows me well. I invited him over for pizza and wine, wore sweatpants and no makeup and had him read (and provide feedback for) my freelance article, due the next day.

He had long hair, big dreams, appletini-colored eyes (I’d later, embarrassingly, tell him) and a smile that piqued my interest from the moment I saw him, sitting nonchalantly on the couch at a mutual friend’s house party over Memorial Day weekend, wearing my rival college’s logo on his baseball cap. I had nothing to lose.

The years that followed were filled with laughter and the lovely realizations that take place when two people, once strangers, end up falling in love. They were also filled with learnings, of the long-distance kind, moments that tested our relationship far sooner than most and that ultimately assured us that so as long as we had each other, we had it all.

Two years from that first official date, July 8, Sean (now as an officer in the U.S. Navy), would propose just steps away from the Eiffel Tower, making it all seem like a fairy tale. Half a year later, we’d be married and embark on the ultimate test of all — a nearly one-year deployment. His time away tested more than just our threshold for distance. In our first year of marriage, distance was the least of our troubles, as we dealt with my mom’s tragic passing and a major move just days upon his arrival. It dawned on us then that love does not just grow from the good. It draws and becomes stronger with the challenges it’s forced to face. When grief stabs you in the side, love holds your back and makes you whole again.

Five years. In the grand scheme of life, how much could a half-decade be worth? To me, it has meant everything. These five years have taught me what love really is, what it looks like, what it feels like, what it has the power to overcome and to ignite. Five years with Sean has been just the beginning of what I hope will be many, many, many years of more laughter and more lovely realizations and more learnings — though I hope there are less of the long-distance kind in our future (talking to you, CIC!).

Happy fifth anniversary to the best guy I know — to the one who loves me in sweatpants and no makeup and is still the best writing critic I have. I love you beyond.