Darcy Lewis Design

Adventures in "Good Enough" Design

Overrated Sights and Secret Gems in Havana, Cuba

Overrated Places You Should Just Skip:

  • HEMMINGWAY – Unless you are specifically going to Cuba on a Hemmingway quest to follow the man’s footsteps, anything associated with him is going to be a packed madhouse of tourists and not very interesting.  This list includes El Floridita bar and their daiquiries, La Bodeguita del Medio and their mojitos, and Hemmingway’s House (it’s really just a house…).
  • FAC –Hear me out before you jump on me for this one.  What they are doing at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano is great and very important and interesting.  But what we did not realize was just how long the line was.  It is possible to stand in line for hours and still not get in.  People in line told us they’d been in line for over an hour and expected at least another hour-plus wait.  There is a VIP line and some AirBnB experiences promise a direct entry, but if you want to go, plan on going at least an hour before they open and just hope you get in with the first wave of admissions.
  • Coppelia – The favorite national chain ice cream shop, every guide book we saw touted it’s incredible ice cream.  No one we talked with agreed that it was incredible.  It’s not bad, but it’s perfectly ordinary ice cream.  If you go to Parque Coppelia for it, be aware that there a number of small Coppelia shops scattered through the park, each with a slightly different flavor list.  So if you don’t see what you like, go on to the next one.
  • SHOPPING – El Quitrin‘s selection of linen guayabera men’s shirts is not very good especially if you go  beyond a US medium. We did not find a good alternative.  Habana 1791 is a little perfumery.  They have pretty bottles in a lovely little shop, and scents can be custom mixed for you (about $10 for a small bottle), but the scents were all pretty conventional, even their own house blends.  Most of the shop people speak little or no English (an odd choice for a shop whose clientele is primarily tourists), and they just let you select your choices and mix them – they don’t really advise or help you find a good scent for you.
  • Almacenes San Jose – This is a huge covered ‘flea market’ in an old shipping warehouse on the waterfront.  There is 1 shop with leather goods (they really favor patchwork and not great quality materials), 1 with funny and rude quotes printed on things, 1 with linen and crochet clothes, 1 with wooden toys, and 1 with Che t-shirts – each times 100.  Yes, you basically have the same half dozen stalls just repeated over and over with only a few variations to make things interesting.  Around the perimeter are art stalls.  There are a couple very talented and interesting artists doing their own thing, and the rest are churning out the same images as half the artists in Havana because that’s what sells.  I had fun picking out a piece I loved and then walking around to see the imitations – very different qualities of skill and technique were clear as they all copied the same picture.  This is the place to go if you want to get cheap Made-in-China crap printed with CUBA or Che’s face.  There are a couple gems buried in here, but not enough to justify the hunt.

HIDDEN GEMS YOU MUST SEE!!

  • Fusterlandia – This oddity was not in any of our guidebooks nor did any of the hotels or tourist information people want to discuss it or have any pictures of it.  In fact, our only hint that this place existed was a tiny labeled dot on our map.  Fusterlandia is the result of one artist’s passionate dream to cover his whole neighborhood in mosaic tiles.  The result is totally insane and looks like Chagall’s brain on drugs, but is definitely worth a visit!!!  Located at the far end of the luxe Miramar neighborhood, there isn’t much else out here, so try to get your cab to wait for you since getting a ride home will be tricky. There are other tourists here, but they mostly come on buses.  30-45 minutes is enough time to rush through, without much lingering.  Entrance is free.

 

  • Cafe Escorial – This little cafe is tucked into the corner of Plaza Vieja in Habana Vieja.  Known for their excellent coffee and drinks, this cafe does a bustling trade at all hours and you may have to wait for a table.  It’s totally worth it, and I highly recommend their Cafe Helado Escorial – a marvelous treat of coffee, ice cream, and whiskey whipped cream.  They do sell their ground beans, but tend to run out by afternoon, so if you want to buy coffee beans go early!
  • Hotel Saratoga – Across from the capitol, this nice hotel has incredible view from their rooftop bar.  The drinks aren’t very good, but the view is worth checking out – a 270-degree view over the city! (See my previous post – A Half-Day Plan for Havana )
  • Military History – If the Cuban Missile Crisis is your interest, the palatial Hotel Nacional still has cannon emplacements and trenches from those days.  There is a small exhibit in the underground trenches.  If you look sufficiently interested, the guide might just lock the doors and take you on a private tour through the narrow trenches.  Though he didn’t really speak English, we managed to get the gist.  The grounds are nice to stroll and the outlook over the water is delightful, so anyone in your group not interested in trenches can relax and wait.
  • Performing Arts – Cuba has a very strong and vibrant performing arts scene and it’s definitely worth taking in a show if you can.  We caught a dance show at the Centro Cultural Bertold Brecht (next to the largest synagogue in Havana), and a concert that set up in Habana Vieja randomly one day.
  • Jardin Ky19 – This is a tiny nursery run out of one woman’s front yard.  In the back she has very cute ceramics and wooden carvings.  Her prices are excellent and the merchandise runs the gamut from art pieces to kitsch.  Whatever your taste, you will probably find something you like that is unique and nicer than the same-old-same-old souvenirs you’ll find everywhere else.  (Calle K, between 19 & 21, #354. No posted hours, you can call to ask – m. 5 253 3784).

 

Tips for Traveling in Cuba

There are tons of great guide books out there, so these are just a few tips to add to the list:

Before we left, we ordered all the newly-updated guidebooks we could find.  Our two favorites were Rough Guides’ Cuba and Frommer’s Easy Guide to Cuba.  Also, if you’re spending any time in the capitol, be sure to buy the StreetSmart map of Havana from vanDam.  This plastic laminated map was wonderfully informative, accurate, fit nicely into seat pockets and purses (note it does not fold up small enough for a front pocket), and was an absolute life-saver!!

Packing: Of course you should check the weather before you go, and pack accordingly, but remember that Cuba is very dusty, so clothes that are easy to clean, replaceable, and hide dirt are advised.  Laundry facilities are very hard to find unless your hotel offers, so clothes you can rinse out yourself and that will dry quickly are ideal.  I love the Horizon Travex pants from Eddie Bauer since they are so easy to travel with and can look really dressy too.

You will have to buy an exit visa to leave Cuba.  This is done at your last US point of departure and you will not be allowed to board the flight without it.  The cost of this visa is $50-$100 depending on what airline you are flying and what city you are departing out of.
On the plane, before landing in Cuba they will pass out forms for you to fill out.  You should fill them all out properly (pay careful attention to the forms – they keep switching the date formats even within one form and not all of the questions have been correctly translated so are unclear), but be advised that your pink and white embarkation and debarkation form will probably never ever be used (at entry or exit).  So you can fill that out if you want, but can keep it tucked into your handbag and produce it only if asked since otherwise they will just keep throwing it back at you.
Also note that the Havana airport has FIVE terminals which are really mini independent airports located several kilometers from each other.  Be sure to ask what terminal you are at when you land and be very sure you go back to that same terminal to leave unless your airline instructs you otherwise.  We got stranded at the wrong terminal because all international flights (except United and a few others) are there.  If you are taking a domestic flight to Trinidad (in Cuba, not the separate island nation of the same name) or elsewhere, make sure you know what terminal you need to go to since those fly out of other terminals.

The country has a dual currency system – tourists use CUC (1 CUC = 1 USD) and locals use CUP (1 CUC = 25 CUP).  I wanted to be sure I could buy from local shops so I changed money into both CUC and CUP.  I found that it was very rarely useful to have CUP as most places can take both and prices rarely differ by much (ie, there is often a tiny price difference slanted to favor one currency over the other, but not enough to matter at all). Because there is a 10% ‘commission’ charged for changing USD, we changed our money into Canadian dollars before leaving.  I don’t think this really made much difference and was just more hassle than it was worth.
Be sure to bring enough money with you since you will not be able to access any additional funds once in the country (US credit cards cannot be used in Cuba, and there only a couple of places – mainly large state-run hotels – that even have credit card capabilities.  For that reason, we like pre-booking accommodations via AirBnB so we didn’t have to bring that cash (a word on that below).  We calculated our budget, then added an additional 50% for emergencies.  We ended up spending every single penny of it.  We could certainly have saved more money if we were very careful about expenditures, but we didn’t buy lots of souvenirs and were pretty careful with our money and bargained for everything. Don’t be fooled, Havana is surprisingly expensive.

Bargaining is certainly accepted and often expected, but be aware that this is not like many Middle Eastern or Asian countries – negotiations are more laid back and they will let you walk away rather than continue to negotiate.  It’s always worth trying, but be polite and friendly about it, don’t approach it with the mindset of “They are trying to cheat me and I must win!”  Also understand that many prices are wildly inflated and because Cuba still has the novelty and ‘cool’ factor, tourists often cave and pay those prices.  I would expect prices to be brought relatively in line as the country opens and tourists become more discerning, but that seems some years out still.

Though there is not a lot of heavy traffic, there is a lot of friendly honking. Cars will gently tootle at each other to signal all kinds of things, including lots of polite warnings (I’m coming through! I’m about to get a green light and will then be moving! I found a taxi fare! Congratulations, you got a taxi fare! I will be turning! You just ran into my lane and almost hit me, please be careful! There is a speed trap up ahead!).  There is almost no aggressive honking.  Many of the horns (and all the other parts on the cars) are after-market additions, and so will play an enormous range of sounds, notes, and even a few bars of song.  Traffic lights are brilliant marked with a countdown clock that tells you exactly how many seconds of that color are remaining.  This helps traffic move very efficiently since everyone can predict the red light (the yellow light is not always present and is only 3 seconds long), and be ready to move as soon as it turns green.

To flag a taxi, just go to a curb and stick your arm straight out palm down, and wave towards your body with just your fingers.  Many private cars are willing to function as taxis and it’s safe, so any car that pulls over for you is fine.  Negotiate the price of the ride before you get in, sometimes reducing the fare by 50%!  You may have to walk away once or twice before you find a taxi willing to take you for the fare you want to pay (ask your casa hosts and other tourists how much you should expect to pay to set your standards.)  Nicer cars are more expensive than crappy cars, but are also more comfortable and fun.  Nice vintage cars are the most expensive option. This means you can enjoy the view rather than worrying if they got lost or are taking a more expensive route to run up the meter and cheat you. Expect to pay a high premium if you want a cab at night (if you can even find one – less of a problem in Havana, very difficult outside the city proper), or are in an area with little competition (if there is no other cab coming by, you don’t have much bargaining power).  In addition to taxis, personal transportation options including CocoTaxis – yellow fiberglass coconuts that seat 2-3 with a driver on a motorbike.  Cheap, not good safety records, lots of fun.  Horse-drawn carriages – in Havana this seems to be an option mainly for tourists.  In the countryside it seemed to be more for locals.  And bicitaxis – like bicycle rickshaws.  Public buses are very tightly packed and not an easy option for tourists.

Popular! Cuba is very popular with tourists from all over the world, and the country can be surprisingly packed during the high season.  Top-rated restaurants listed in guidebooks are frequently sold out days in advance, so if there is something you really want to do, try to have your hosts or hotel call for a reservation ahead of time.  Areas that are popular are likely to be very crowded.

The famous Tropicana is one such example – people are packed in tightly and while tickets are usually available on the same day, the shows usually sell out.  Even with a ticket you should show up about an hour before the show to get a good seat.  Despite what your guidebooks and guides say, your experience will not be what you expect (your seat will be wrong, your group may be broken up, your food is not what was advertised and neither is your ‘souvenir’, etc.).  Arguing with them is mostly pointless, and will annoy you without accomplishing anything.  Nonetheless, you can see the show and if you stay to the VERY end, you can dance on their stage!!  The show is nice but feels like the same song and dance routine endlessly repeated with various costume changes and an occasional twist.  You go for the experience, not because it’s an awesome night out.

While the tap water is not considered potable, we brought a LifeStraw bottle and never used it.  We also ate and drank at restaurants (though not from street vendors) without asking about their ice, and also brushed our teeth with tap water (carefully spitting it all out) and none of us got sick from anything.  Be sure to buy water from shops or restaurants rather than street vendors who may be reusing bottles and filling them with tap water.

On that note, medicines you know from home can be hard to find, so be sure your own first-aid kit is fully stocked just in case you need something.  Bring bug spray and anti-itch cream – mosquitoes are bitey, though of our group I was the only one to be favored and everyone else suffered only a bite or two.

Havana is a mixture of gorgeous buildings from the countries storied past, and ruins of those same buildings.  It’s a fascinating city with a rich mix of styles, construction and decay, wealth and poverty, most of it side by side, rather than segmented away.  Expect to do lots of walking, and know that the streets are often torn up, badly paved, full of steep steps up and down off curbs, or otherwise inhospitable.  Comfortable flat shoes with lots of cushioning are highly recommended!!!  Be careful, mind your step, expect a wrenched ankle, and bring bandaids for the almost inevitable injuries.  While I did see a few tourists in wheelchairs, it is a very difficult city to explore for non-able walkers.

Public bathrooms almost never have toilet paper or soap, and rarely have even the seat. Your odds of a seat are pretty good in fancier restaurants or the large hotels, but you should probably plan on carrying a pack of tissues and hand sanitizer with you.  Many toilets suffer from low water pressure, so be a thoughtful guest and check that everything flushed before you leave.  You may have to flush even urine several times.

AirBnB scams are pretty common – you book a nice place on AirBnB, pay for it, show up and find the room is unavailable for some reason (they often double and triple book and then whoever shows up first gets the room).  Don’t worry, they have already arranged another room for you with their friend – that happens to be significantly less nice (smaller, more stairs, fewer amenities, not enough bedrooms or bathrooms, etc.) than what you paid for, and since you can’t get on the internet very easily, you can’t do very much about it.  While you should absolutely be sure to contact AirBnB upon your return, you do have a couple options in the meantime.  To prevent this, be sure that the place you are renting on AirBnB has actual reviews from actual people that say nice things about it.  Many of the online listings don’t have reviews or have evidence of last-minute cancellations.  It’s safer to just steer clear of those.  Even with all precautions things happen and sometimes your room is not available (or up to snuff).  Getting internet is quite difficult and AirBnB cannot be accessed from Cuba, so if you need a room try explaining to your hosts what you need and ask them to call around and find you something.  There are LOTS of rooms for rent, so as a last resort, you can also wander around looking for the blue anchor/house logo that signals a room for rent (casa particular) and ask them if they have room or can call around and find a room for you.  This can be a very involved, time-consuming, process, but there is hope.  The country can get quite full in the high season (November to March), so it’s best to pre-book as much of your accommodations as you can as on-the-ground arrangements are so hard.  And of course, the state-run hotels may have room but will be much more expensive.

Island Time! The country runs on island time, so don’t expect to get much done in a day, and do expect meals to take at least an hour from when you sit down to when you get the check.  Service is very slow, restaurants are often out of whatever you ordered (though the one item they do have instead has all of the same ingredients making you wonder why your item is not available), drinks and desserts are often forgotten, and food will usually come out randomly and at very different times (entrees before appetizers, one person will get two courses before the others have even received one, etc.).  Just smile, relax, and go with the flow.  Don’t overplan your day – you will make yourself and others miserable. Depending on what part of town you are in, be aware that museums and attractions and most shops close at 5-6pm, even in the heart of the tourist areas.  Restaurants tend to close early too – not much is open after 10pm.

There are lots of guards and police and various uniformed officials everywhere.  While they often look grim, they are usually fairly friendly and willing to offer directions, information, and other help.

Havana and much of the country is somewhat overrun with tourists and so locals may be camera shy or not interested in interacting because they have had enough.  Be respectful of that.  They are usually more willing to be photographed if you ask first.

Regardless of your personal politics and opinion of Trump, the Cubans are really hopeful that because Trump is a businessman, he will relax US sanctions even more.  Thus, when they ask your opinion of him as president, they don’t actually care if you like him or not, they are just expressing their hopes that the embargo will be ended.

From the framework of our experiences, Cuba is sort of a combination of Soviet-era Russia, late 1990s-China, and Prague.  Things are often not available, many amenities we take for granted (flushing toilets, hot water, electricity, internet, shops to buy replacement items) can be more scarce than most Westerners are used to.  People are mostly pretty friendly, but very few people speak English – even tourist information desks are often staffed by people with only a very rudimentary command.  There is often an expectation for a tip (restaurants, public bathrooms, etc.), but little or slow or grudging service.  Cubans do not yet seem to understand (or care) that tourists expect certain things and are willing to pay for them, but are not willing to pay for a lack of those things.  So just keep your expectations adjusted accordingly and do not get impatient, cranky, or frustrated – it won’t do any good and you’ll just make everyone unhappy including yourself.  Expect things to be a hassle or difficult and you will be pleasantly surprised by how much fun you have and how much smoother things go!

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CUBA! A Half-Day Plan for Havana

Apologies for the long silence, I was in Cuba for a couple weeks and crazy busy trying to get everything together beforehand.  This is the first of several posts about Cuba and traveling advice.

If you have several days in Havana (Habana as it’s called in Spanish), I would highly recommend the following itinerary for one of your half days.  It’s a nice leisurely tour with as much or as little walking as you like.

Start at Casa Miglis in Central Havana (Centro Habana) for lunch (on Lealtad, between Animas and Lagunas.  Hours are noon-midnight).  This Swedish-Cuban fusion place is one of the priciest meals you will find in Cuba (entrees are around $15), but the food is excellent (drinks are only so-so), the service attentive, the decor whimsical, the setting atmospheric, and it’s a wonderful fun lunch that will fuel you for the rest of the day.  Casa Miglis is set in a few blocks from the Malecon (the walk that runs along the sea), in one of the more run-down areas of the downtown.  Don’t be alarmed – we never felt unsafe or threatened anywhere, even as a solo female.  Casa Miglis has their own intranet you can peruse while you wait for your food and catch up on the owner’s former life in the entertainment industry.

If you don’t want to walk, after lunch go back to the Malecon and grab a taxi to the Partagas cigar factory next to the capitol in Central Park (Parque Central – about $3).

If you want to walk off your lunch, stroll over to Avenida de Italia (the street is also known as Galiano) and make a left (away from the Malecon) and stroll deeper into the heart of Centro Habana.  This area has many shops for the locals and so it’s a great chance to see some local department stores and watch daily life unfold.  Be aware that when going into shops and department stores, many do not allow bags or backpacks (small purses are ok) and you will be required to check your bag with a ‘guardabolsos’ outside – you may need an ID to do this.  We took turns leaving one person outside with the bags.  Photos inside shops are usually prohibited.  If you buy anything, be sure you have the receipt handy until you leave the building – your bagged purchase and receipt may be inspected several times before you leave the shop.

Continue on to Chinatown (El Barrio Chino)(make a left onto Calle Zanja and stay on it as it turns into Calle Dagones) – note the gate that spans Calle Dragones at Calle Amistad.  While the once large and thriving Chinese community has all but disappeared (emigration and assimilation), the ornate gate entrance to the area and many themed shops and restaurants stand as testament to their legacy.

Go through the gate and continue on to the Partagas cigar factory at the corner of Calle Industria and Calle Dragones.  While the factory has been closed for restoration for some years (with no scheduled reopening date), it’s a great place to start your walk around the capitol building.  Continue down Calle Industria away from the park that stands diagonally opposite Partagas (the Parque de la Fraternidad).  The beautiful capital building is also partially obscured with scaffolding for it’s own restoration but is still open and functioning.  Ringing it are beautiful buildings like the Gran Teatro de La Habana and the Cinema Payret, Cuba’s first motion picture theater, and many shops and hotels.  I love the old ruined building next to the Gran Teatro and hope they restore it too – it looks gorgeous.

Continue around the capitol until you get back to the other side of the park from where you started.  Diagonally in front and to your left is the elegant Hotel Saratoga which offers a lovely rooftop terrace bar and commanding views over most of the city.  The drinks are not great, but it’s a nice place to end your tour, relax, unwind, and enjoy the views before continuing on with your evening.

 

 

The Door Keeper Blog Tour & Review!

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As you know, I have a very long and very passionate relationship with books.  I have a list on this blog of my favorites – a list I made because I read so voraciously that friends always ask me for book recommendations.  My mood is often dictated by the book I am currently reading and what is happening to the characters – I get so engrossed in their lives that their reality is at least as clear to me as my own.

Thus, I was thrilled to join the Royal James Publishing’s blog tour for their new book, The Door Keeper, the debut offering from Steen Jones.  (As a disclaimer, while I received a free e-advanced reader copy of the book, my review is entirely independent.)

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I admit I was a little wary of the novel when I read the blurb, “Adventure. Love. Destiny.  Single mom Eden Saunders has learned that tragedy is simply a part of life. Her mother died during childbirth, and her husband was killed just three years after they married. On a journey to discover where she comes from, Eden inherits the key to unlocking new worlds from her deceased mother—including the world that should have been her home. The only thing stopping her from exploring them is the fear of leaving her daughter behind. Caught up in the circle of legacy, Eden discovers the mother-daughter bond that even death cannot break.”

It sounds like the moving family story full of angst and emotional discovery that I usually avoid, to be honest.  However, I was thrilled to find that it was a very engaging, very exciting story that I couldn’t put down.  While this book reads like a debut novel (you can see the author’s development of her writing voice as the book progresses), it is nonetheless a remarkable start to what is to be a trilogy.  Ms. Jones has a wonderful knack for describing scenes and breathing real life into her characters.  Her description of Sorrento, Italy was so vivid, I had dug out my passport and was on my way to the airport before I came back to reality!

sorrento Seriously, doesn’t this make you want to run for the airport?

Eden is a very sympathetic and believable heroine – building a life for herself and her young daughter as an artist and owner of a new art gallery, adopted under circumstances she’s never inquired about.  Her daughter’s family tree school assignment touches off Eden’s search for her birth family and a stunning secret about parallel worlds and her own unearthly origins. Her adventurous forays into these parallel worlds (particularly enjoyable for those of us who love quantum theory and Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox, though these worlds are non-paradoxical) bring into question her own identity and whether she must subsume her own personal goals and desires to be a good mother.  Those readers who love strong female leads (like myself) will be relieved to find that Eden comes to terms with an identity that is as complex and 3-dimensional as real women are.

The Door Keeper straddles several genre categories, but defies neat pigeonholing.  It has fantastical elements, but is not really a fantasy novel.  It has a strong female lead learning about her life, but is more than “chick lit” (a term I hate, coined to disparagingly dismiss ‘books that women like’).

The epilogue feels a little like an afterthought, but does neatly set us up for book number two, and I can hardly wait!  I am really looking forward to seeing Ms. Jones’ continued development as a writer and she is definitely an author to watch.  The Door Keeper comes out on Feb. 20th, and you can preorder it from Amazon here or from Smashwords here.  You can also find it on Goodreads.

Follow the Royal James Publishing and the rest of the blog tour here.
For information on Steen Jones and The Door Keeper, visit the website.

Also, there are TWO giveaways for this book!  You know you love free stuff, PLUS, don’t you want to win a copy of this great book as soon as it comes out?!

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There are two giveaways in celebration of the release of The Door Keeper by Steen Jones. One hosted by Royal James Publishing and one by the author Steen Jones.

The first giveaway, hosted by Royal James Publishing, will run from now until the release of the novel.

Click here  or visit Royal James Publishing’s Facebook page to enter to win a signed copy of, The Door Keeper by Steen Jones and a $20 Amazon gift card.

The second giveaway will start on the release date, more details about this giveaway to be released soon.

The Door Keeper

So excited to be participating in Royal James Publishing’s blog tour for their new book, The Door Keeper…

I will be posting about it in just 3 short days….  Can’t wait to tell you about it!

She Wore WHAT?!

I’m only now starting to catch up on the hundreds of open browser tabs of fascinating articles I meant to read… but one of the articles I had been particularly saving was this incredible story about Michelle Obama’s wardrobe.

I’ve heard a lot of comments about how Melania is so much better dressed, but I think that really misses the point of Mrs. Obama’s deliberate choices.  She worked very hard to represent specific messages with her wardrobe – her fashion choices were arguably the most reasoned and deliberate of any celebrity.  Regardless of your political leanings, it is quite safe to say that she has been the most ‘democratically’ dressed First Lady ever, or at least since Eleanor Roosevelt.  Her wardrobe was comprised of both custom pieces from high-end designers and J. Crew, even Target!  And was always ‘on-point’.  She purposefully mixed affordable pieces in to her wardrobe (something Melania will never do since that is the antithesis of her brand) and made dressing well and being interested in clothing something that was fun instead of a daily struggle.

If you have heard me speak on fashion, you will know that I talk a lot about the messages we send with our clothing and how it behooves us to control that message and use it to signal deliberately.  Michelle Obama did exactly that – from her choice of color and style down to the price point and ethnicity or national ties of the designer (she tended to wear designers with ties to specific countries for state dinners or other functions when she wanted to acknowledge major international events or happenings).

Mrs. Obama gave the fashion industry an unprecedented boost – including launching the careers of young designers – and we in that field have really enjoyed watching it.  Salut.

Please click over to the Washington Post for the original article and a slide show!

A Life Lived Backwards

We are now a month in to the new year and facing a dramatically changing world – both at home and abroad.  This seems like a good time for me to explain my belief in living life backwards.

Far too many of us sort of drift through life doing what is expected of us or what we ‘have’ to do, with little design or intention.  Do you work at a job you hate because you need the money?  Does your current life bring you joy, fulfillment, satisfaction?

I believe in living backwards:  Start with my total goal of what my ideal life looks like, then figure out how to get there.
Many people tell me how ‘lucky’ I am to have such a wonderful husband, they ask me wistfully where I found him and if he has a brother…  And it’s true, he is amazing and I am lucky.  But it’s not an accident or mere luck that my husband is so perfect.  I had stopped dating, resigned to being single rather than settling for the wrong guy.  When I met him, I told him on the first date that I was looking to get married (in general, not necessarily to him), and that if he wasn’t open to the possibility of commitment then he should tell me now.  He was very taken aback, but after a little thought he decided he was open to the possibility.  I spent the first week of dates ‘interviewing’ him to see if he met my criteria and if we had compatible life goals, views, and interests.  I even laid out my expectations for how we communicate and fight, how we handle major life issues, and what kind of marriage and relationship I wanted to have.  I got lucky in that he was compatible, wanted the same things, and was willing to compromise with me.  But if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have kept dating him let alone married him.  Now, this approach seems really cold-blooded to some, but it did ensure that I didn’t waste his time or mine, it ensured that we were on the same page from the very beginning of our relationship, and it did ensure that we have a very solid foundation to our marriage.  The start of a new relationship is the best time to be pragmatic – before you get emotionally invested.

So, are you ready to live your life backwards?

  1. Sit down and think carefully about what your ideal life looks like.  Where do you live? What do you do with your day? What kind of relationships do you have? Be sure to also think about what you enjoy doing and what skills you have that you want to use or skills you want to develop.  The more in detail you go, the more successful the next step will be…
  2. Plot out how to get from here to there:  Do you need further education? How will you make that happen? Do you need to master a certain skill set? Find a class or just start with some books from the library and YouTube! KNOW YOURSELF – make sure your desired goal is what you really want and your plan needs to be realistic for you -if you aren’t academically-inclined, a future that requires a PhD might not be right for you.  I am very impatient and a little lazy, so any life goal or plan that requires very patient work (like being an art restorer) is totally out for me (there is a reason I created the Good Enough philosophy!!)  Be aware that as well as you may know yourself, you may be wrong about things.  Maybe you are generally impatient but for the right thing you have unlimited patience… maybe you could be an art restorer after all! I know lawyers who hate conflict but have been shocked to find they love being a litigator (which is all about direct conflict!) Don’t get so locked in to ‘knowing yourself’ that you don’t try new things.
  3. Finally, make choices that further your goals.  Evaluate opportunities – will this help me towards my goal or take me in a different direction? (Sometimes we find wonderful things in other directions, but not if they are pushing us to stay where we don’t want to be!)  Look for the right opportunities – volunteer for an extra work project that will let you develop skills you need, sign up to teach something you need to practice with, develop an article on your topic and submit it to local publications or the office newsletter.  Find role models – people in your or a similar industry who are doing what you want to do and study how they got there.  Call them and ask for an informational interview and pick their brain about how they got there and what they like and don’t like about their job.
    Be ruthless – you may have to make very difficult choices about work, time, and relationships, and friends and family may feel threatened by your plan – especially if you want something very different than what they have.

Don’t forget to stop periodically, at least once a year, and evaluate where you are, make sure your desired destination hasn’t changed (if it has, redo your plan and continue towards the new goal!), check for trends and changes in your industry that will impact your plans and adjust accordingly.

I made this choice very very early in my life, and have been living pretty close to my ideal life ever since!  Nay-sayers will try to shoot you down with archaic notions of ‘paying your dues’ by doing something you hate before you’ve ‘earned’ the right to enjoy your life.  I believe that life is too short to waste it on something you don’t love.  These goals are not impossible and they aren’t just a luxury for the rich.  This does require discipline and dedication and lots of hard work, but it is possible and achievable!

What are you going to work towards this year?  I have 3 books I’m working on that I need to make serious progress on; I have some art competitions coming up I’m racing to finish pieces for; I’m growing my textile business; I’m starting to study for law school which I will be starting this fall; I have my Fulbright stint abroad coming up, and I have a number of smaller personal and collaborative projects that I’m also trying to juggle.  I’m hoping this year is a very full, successful, productive, joyous, and healthy one for us all!!

Would love to hear from you about your plans and goals for the year!

Delicious Apple Roses

UPDATED POST!!
I kept seeing these gorgeous, easy, pastries online and decided I must make them!  They are indeed easy, and make a dramatic statement that is sure to impress your guests!  I made several batches (I got carried away and bought too many apples), and did something different with each batch.  In the first batch, I added lots of spices and additions, but you couldn’t really taste it and the second batch – without spices or additions – was even better, so you can add a pinch of cinnamon, a dash of ginger, and a sprinkle of nutmeg… or just let the jam carry the flavor…

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Easy Apple Roses

Makes 12 Roses.

Ingredients:                                           

  • 1 box (2 sheets) of puff pastry, thawed
  • 2 reddish-pink apples (I used Pink Pearl)
  • lemon juice (about 1 lemon’s worth)
  • 4 tablespoons of preserves – your choice of flavor
  • spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, etc. to taste) (optional)
  • powdered sugar for decorating (optional)

Time: about 30 minutes prep time, plus 45-60 minutes baking time.

Directions:
1. Mix the lemon juice with some cool water (about equal amounts) – this will be used to keep your apples from browning as they are cut.  Core the apples and slice them paper thin.  Leave the peel on – that adds the defined colored edge to your roses.  As you slice them you can either dip them in the lemon water and then lay them in a bowl or you can layer them in a bowl first and periodically splash them with the lemon water (I’m lazy, did it that way, they didn’t discolor and it was very quick and easy).

2. Lay a large piece of parchment paper on your counter (I use butter knives to weight it down).  Unwrap the thawed puff pastry, there will be 2 sheets inside the wrap, each sheet is folded in thirds.  Take 1 sheet and place it on a dinner plate – still folded.  Microwave for about 15-20 seconds, just until it’s soft and easy to work with.  Lay it on the parchment paper and unfold it.

3. Put the 4 Tbl of jam in a glass dish and microwave for 15 seconds to soften.  Use a butter knife and spread a little less than half over the pastry.  Don’t worry about getting it EVERYWHERE, just mostly cover the dough.

4. Microwave the bowl of sliced apples on high for about 1-2 minutes to soften them (see note below on the time).  You can also simmer them with water on the stovetop if you prefer for a few minutes (but why?! It’s much more work…).  Whether you microwave or simmer, they should be cooked just enough to bend without breaking – not actually get cooked.  If you bend one and it snaps, cook for another minute then test again.

5. Cut the dough along the two fold lines, then cut the resulting 3 rectangles in half making 6 narrow strips.  Take your bowl of apples and layer the slices along one half of the dough – the rounded outside edge of the apple should hang out over the edge – they will be your rose petals.  Sprinkle with spices if desired.  Lay the apples almost edge to edge -leave just enough space to pinch the dough closed.

6. Preheat the oven to 375º F (190 º C), and prepare a muffin pan – butter and flour it (or use spray) if it’s metal (I’ve tried it without spray… you want spray!), you don’t need to do anything if it’s silicone.  Fold the dough in half, encasing the cut edges of the apple. Pinch the ends shut. Gently roll the strip up – the apples will try to pop out and the jam will ooze out, but persevere!  You will find the trick to a smooth roll lies in being gentle and supporting the apples.  Immediately pop the completed rose into a cup in the muffin tin. Make the others the same way.

7. Bake for 40-60 minutes – until dough is baked all the way through and lightly browning.  You can tent the top with foil for the last 10 minutes if it’s getting over-browned.  Delicious served warm with French Vanilla ice cream or by itself.

NOTES:
I don’t like the Pepperidge Farm brand puff pastry – the dough has an odd aftertaste, but it’s almost impossible to find any other brand.  If you use something else you like better, please let me know!  The next step is to make my own, but did I mention I’m very lazy….??

This seems to bake better (for me at least) on the top shelf rather than on the middle shelf.  The batch made in the middle took FOREVER (over an hour) to bake and then ended up unevenly done.  The top shelf browned very nicely and ended up a little overdone because I left it for too long – expecting it to be closer to the first batch.  In retrospect, 45 minutes would have done it.

A word on flavors: The first batch I made I used strawberry and cassis cream jam (very mild flavor), added lots of cinnamon, a tiny pinch of brown sugar, a dash of ginger, and a fine sprinkle of nutmeg.  I also cut the dough into thirds instead of sixths.  The second batch, I used coarse-cut bitter marmalade, no spices or sugar, and cut the dough in sixths.  You couldn’t really taste the spices in the first batch (think I may need to experiment with this some more), and the second batch was MUCH better and easier – cutting the dough in sixths instead of thirds is vital, though the orange chunks were a little too large.  The third batch was with black raspberry jam – really nice fruity flavor, and I love how the dark juice from the jam tinted the roses! UPDATE: So far, the tasters agree that the orange and the black raspberry are both delicious, but the orange is edging the raspberry – tasters like the sharpness of the orange in contrast to the softer flavors of the pastry and the apple.

I had my husband cut about 6 apples at once, and have made 24 roses so far and easily have enough apple left for another 12 roses (EDIT – I did indeed make 36 roses).  I’ve been keeping the slices in the freezing cold garage in a covered dry bowl.  They are only now (almost a week after cutting) starting to brown slightly, so this has been a great recipe to stagger baking with!

Microwaving the apples!  On my first and second batches, I had a big bowl full of sliced apples, so I nuked them for 1.5-2 minutes and they were perfect.  By the time I was halfway through my third batch, the bowl was nearly empty, so when I put it in for 1.5 minutes they cooked much more than I wanted!  (It’s that I forgot, I’d added a little raw apple that was very fresh and thought it needed the longer cook time, but then the apple that was already soft-ish in the bowl cooked!).  I was very upset and you can see the difference in the before-baking photo – the raw, rosy, slightly-softened apples on the left, the overcooked, limp, yellowy ones on the right.  However, when they came out of the oven, they were identical and perfectly delicious.  Lesson to take away is that this is a pretty forgiving recipe and don’t worry if you screw up a little!

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When you put your roses in the pan you will notice a little column of dough in the center of the rose.  It’s difficult to avoid, but if you have an especially thin and soft piece of apple, lay it on top of the closed dough just before rolling the strip up (see photo below), then you’ll have a curl of apple in the center instead.  Otherwise, you can put a little dab of jam in that center – still attractive and delicious!  Note the difference:  The rose on the left has the apple on top of the dough before curling, the one on the right does not:

Here is the apple on top just prior to rolling:

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First batch: Melted butter to brush them closed, dough cut in thirds instead of sixths, lots of spices….imag6290

This is how you layer your apples in your dough and then fold the dough closed. (This is the first batch, so your dough won’t be that wide and your apples will not be so snugly enclosed, but you get the idea…)apple-slices

My much prettier third batch – much nicer without the abundance of dough.  Note the jam leaked on the front row and burned a little.  This happens sometimes.  This is (one of) the big differences between how I bake and Pinterest (where this never happens and everything looks beautiful and perfectly staged!)….imag6319

My first batch – too much pastry (dough cut in thirds), no pan spray (they didn’t really stick except where the jam burned, but I did find the spray made a difference in getting them out easily!), with strawberry and cassis jam, and without center apple pieces:
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My second batch – a little overdone and with no pan spray, with marmalade, and without center apple pieces:
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My third batch – perfectly done and with pan spray, with black raspberry jam, and with center apple pieces:
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See what I mean that this recipe is practically fool-proof?!  No matter what I did, they looked and tasted great!

Would love to hear from you if you make this or have any advice or feedback!

New Year Fruit Cake

Hope you all had a wonderful winter holiday and new year!

After 6 years, my Armenian husband and I (Jewish) finally negotiated what we want for holidays and family traditions, and in the sudden peace and happiness that descended on me when this issue (which has been tremendously thorny to me) was settled, I was reminded of my own family’s traditional fruit cake made for the winter holidays, it was a rare treat – a dark, flavorful, rum-soaked, rich delight that I adored.

I’ve never understood why fruitcake is so often the butt of jokes, when it can be so delicious!  The origins of the cake hark back to Roman times, though since they thought rotten fish sauce was the ultimate condiment for everything, I’m thrilled the recipe has evolved a bit…

The Smithsonian wrote up a little thing about the history of the fruitcake HERE .

This is a perfect winter holiday recipe – surprisingly simple (I had remembered it as a complicated, laborious, difficult process, but it wasn’t!!!), warming and delicious, and laden with rich candied fruits, nuts, and exotic spices like nutmeg and cinnamon that all symbolize prosperity for the new year!  Despite all the alcohol soaking it, it’s not very boozy and is safe for kids to eat.

Darcy’s Candied Fruitcake – The Original Version:

1 Cup (C.) chopped dates
1 C./8oz candied pineapple OR citron
1 C./8oz candied cherries
1 C. chopped dried apricots
½ C. dried cranberries
1 pound/16 oz pecan pieces

Mix the chopped fruits with 2/3 C. spiced dark rum and 8 Tbsp. orange juice concentrate, and let soak for several hours.

Sift together:
4 C. flour
2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt

Beat 8 eggs till frothy

Cream 2 sticks of softened butter with ¼ cup white sugar and 1 ¼ cup packed brown sugar

Add the eggs, and:
4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ginger
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.

Mix the eggs and spices with the creamed butter, and slowly add the flour mixture.  Stir until well-blended (do not over-mix) – batter may have a more ‘foamy’ or spongey texture than other cake batters.  Add the fruit and rum mix and stir until well combined.

Pour into a loaf pan lined with a strip of parchment paper (see photos) – it will rise a bit as it bakes!

Bake until a toothpick or knife poked into the middle comes out cleanly – about 2-3 hours.  Invert onto a rack to cool.

After the cake is cool, slowly pour another 2 cups of the spiced dark rum over the cake, pausing often to let it absorb (I did this as 2 sessions, 1 cup of rum each.  A little would puddle on the plate, but would be rapidly absorbed – I was done and the plate was dry within 30-60 minutes.)

The Quick Version:

I stumbled on this when I was in a big hurry to make this AND desperate to clean out my cupboards (good combination for me that has birthed many delicious recipes!).  Honestly, I now like this version better!

Use candied diced citron, candied cherries, candied pineapple – anything that is candied in those ridiculous neon colors (seriously, bright green cherries?!) goes in – preferably it comes already chopped, but I was so lazy I just tossed the cherries in whole.  It worked!  Because everything else was in nice pieces, and the cake was cut into slices, no one noticed the big cherries and it just made a nice variety of textures.  Add the dried cranberries and anything else dried and fruity that you have laying around (I had about 5 dates, and some trail mix fruit bits, and I didn’t have EXACTLY 16oz of pecans.  I could do either 12oz or 18oz because of the bag size, so I went with 18oz.).  Follow the rest of the recipe as written, except for the sugar: I used ONLY the brown sugar in the original quantity, and just omitted the white sugar entirely.  I think it was sweet enough as it was and had a very nice, moist, flavorful taste that was not chemically or rummy nor was it too heavy or too spicy or too sweet.  The little kids who ate a slice didn’t seem to notice the alcohol so I think the cake is heavy enough to counter any alcohol effects.

A NOTE ON PANS:
When I made this last time, I decided I wanted enough for several holiday parties we had coming up, so I doubled the recipe and poured half into my fancy bundt pan, and half into a large loaf pan (which normally equals one cake), but everything seemed so full and I still had batter left over (HOW?!) so I started pouring what was left into mini loaf pans.  This turned out to be a very good call since I’d forgotten the batter rose while baking, and the oven was nearly flooded!  I filled 6 mini loaf pans besides!!  Of the finished products, I left the mini loafs soaking in about 2 cups of rum for a week, and served the 2 larger cakes immediately.   The large loaf pan cake ended up being the best – it kept its moisture well and was very good.  All the others seemed a little drier and not quite as flavorful and balanced, even immediately on cutting.  Since this was also the easiest size and shape to make… I’m happy!

Note the parchment strips in the mini loaf pans, baked on the mini cakes… makes removal from the pan very easy and mostly very clean (a couple of the minis lost a corner), and the paper easily peels off the cake without damage.

Sugared Cranberries

I wrote about the various eggnog cakes with sugared cranberries last year, but the berries have been incredibly popular (and festive!) that I’ve taken to plopping them on top of just about everything!  Since everyone keeps asking for the recipe, I thought I’d present it again.  Remember, this works not only for things like cranberries (which are so incredibly delicious prepared this way that I call them ‘crackberries’), but many other berries and edible flowers (like pansies and violets) as well!

The cranberries will only keep about a week, so I make a lot and SMOTHER a cake with them, which will be fine because your guests will scoop extra onto their plates!

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Ingredients:
2 cups fresh cranberries (places like Costco are generally much cheaper than the grocery store)
2+ cups sugar, divided
1 cup water
Directions:
1. Make simple syrup by bringing 1 cup sugar and water to a simmer in a saucepan. Simmer until sugar is completely dissolved, stirring often.
2. Pour simple syrup into a heatproof bowl and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
3. Add cranberries and stir to coat.
4. Refrigerate cranberries in syrup overnight, stir periodically.
5. Using a slotted spoon, remove cranberries from syrup and let sit for a few minutes to dry a little (you want them moist and tacky, but not soggy).  Put about 1/2 cup of sugar in a large flat-bottomed bowl, and roll the cranberries in it – a few at a time – until they look frosted.  You may need to periodically scrape out the damp sugar in the bowl and replace it with fresh sugar, because it will get damp and clumpy and uncooperative. (I like to put the clumpy sugar in a tupperware container and save it for my tea/coffee or use it for the cake or whatever.  I hate throwing out perfectly good food.)
6. Set cranberries aside to dry a little more.
Here they are, jazzing up a cake.  I love baking the cakes in a bundt pan if I’m going to be using the berries, because then you have a really nice hole in the middle to stuff with berries!

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