October 2012


Back in 2007, I visited Memphis, with music pouring out of Beale Street, the scent of Memphis barbecue (pork or beef) pervading the air, and Graceland beckoning. This fall, I decided to try out the other well-known Tennessee city of music: Nashville. Ali wanted to take me back to her college town (Vanderbuilt) over the Columbus Day weekend. I took the direct flight from National to Nashville; that night Ali and I went to the District, lower Broadway and 2nd Avenue: the music scene in Nashville. Believe it or not, it’s not all country music.

(c) 2012 Kathryn Pharr

After pointing out the Batman Building (known to others as the AT&T building), Ali steered us to The Big Bang, a dueling piano bar that came into existence after New Orleans musicians migrated to Nashville after Katrina. Justin and Eddie were amazing, able to perform any song that was requested while giving each other a hard time. They played everything from ’90s classics to current Top 40.

Since my family is from North Carolina, I had never experienced the vigor for Southern Football (North Carolina traditionally has been bigger on basketball). The piano players must have made over $200 in about 15 minutes with their football gag. They would sing the theme song of any college team if someone came up with money. The first college up was University of Tennessee for $35, so they played “Rocky Top.” Then, randomly, some University of Illinois alums were in town so they laid down $40. Then Auburn joined in. The performers would praise whatever school was in the lead and bash all its rivals until someone else came up to add to the group’s stash. It was hilarious!

Then I was ushered into my very first honky tonk. For those of you who has a honka-what? Honky tonk is another name of a bar that has live music for its patrons but the assumption is that it is either country music or at the very least that the decor is country and definitely not upscale. The Stage definitely had the right decor with simple pine slats for the upstairs railing, large old timey country star posters, an enormous mural of country legends, and a stage you walked right by as you entered. The only problem was that on Friday night they play rock instead of country.

On Saturday, I saw a bit more of Nashville than Broadway. Brunch was at Jackson’s, a definitely modern and fun bistro in Historic Hillsboro Village, the cute shops section of Nashville. After a requisite peak into the dangerous shops of Pangaea and BookManBookWoman (the first because it had cute things I actually needed and the latter because well…there were books for sale), we went up to gap at the gorgeous mansions in Belle Meade, a fancy neighborhood with beautiful large yards, notes the current apartment dweller.

Saturday night was a Vanderbilt football game, which we watched with alums at Dan McGuiness Irish bar. Ali was judging me for ordering whiskey instead of a more proper Irish beer or cider until I let her sip my creation: equal parts Jack Daniels’ honey whiskey and original. We named it “Black and Gold” (Vanderbilt’s colors), we won the game, and it tasted delicious. (For those who now naturally expect me to talk about our trip to the Jack Daniels factory, I have one phrase for you “dry country.” Ironic, isn’t it?) After the game, we went back down to Broadway and wandered into several places in search of whatever music we were in the mood for. We ended the night getting dessert at the Sunset Grill on Belcourt Ave; I naturally had to try the Chocolate Bomb–pretty yummy, very rich.

(c) 2012 Kathryn Pharr

Sunday we ventured out of Nashville to Franklin, a cute town reminiscent of my hometown Lexington, VA, even if in total about 6 times larger. We poked around cute stores to kill time to meet up with friends to picnic at Arrington Vineyards. It was a little chilly but that just made it feel like autumn. We went up to the house for the wine tasting and came back with an excellent red entitled Red Fox Red (the KB 409 was also delicious) to go with our Brie and baguettes. The countryside was lovely. It was such a relaxing and fun afternoon!

Sunday night we grabbed Nashville BBQ, and I heard for the first time of Alabama white sauce, which is a mayo and vinegar combo. The rest of the evening was chill; I really enjoyed all of Ali’s friends.

Monday, our last day, we started off with brunch at the Pancake Pantry, a local tradition since the ’60s. It’s no fuss with huge portions of great breakfast options. I don’t even love pancakes, and I thought the options were too many to choose from! In the end, I went with the sweet potato pancakes with cinnamon sugar syrup–divine! Ali got the Swedish pancakes; like mine, those were also nice because they weren’t too sweet. If you’re thinking those options sound familiar, than you (like myself) have obviously frequented their Sister restaurant: Midtown Cafe in Winston-Salem, N.C.

(c) 2012 Kathryn Pharr

Since I’d gone to Greece in May, Ali and I checked out the perfect replica of the Parthenon that is, surprisingly, in Nashville. While it was interesting to see what the place would have looked like (if it’d been in concrete instead of stone), I found I preferred the lovely gardens surrounding it, especially the koi that must have been five feet long. Soon we were at the airport, having returned the rental car, but we wouldn’t return our memories as quickly. Having a weekend back in the South where people say hello and smile at you was wonderful. And Ali was right: Nashville is a great weekend trip!

My first experience with snorkeling or scuba diving was during my trip to the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea in 2009. The February water was cold but calm, and the sights were amazing: purple, blue, and orange fish, red and orange coral reefs. Looking down through my mask, I could see the scuba divers in our group, who could go wherever they liked whereas I was limited to how long I could hold a breath. I had never been a strong swimmer because I got nervous trying to take a “real” breathe in the middle of strokes. Scuba diving seemed like a great alternative because I would be able to breathe normally, ironic though it sounds.

This winter after trying a indoor pool Discover Scuba course with my sister, I thought now was as good of time as any to become a scuba diver. I wanted to try something adventurous that wasn’t just about traveling. As with all things, it took a little time to get everything in order, but in April I’d signed up for the classroom and pool exercise portion of the certification. Little did I know how much of an adventure and saga it would turn out to be.

Every evening one week after work, I read the book, did the exercises, and watched the videos on scuba diving. Friday night and Saturday morning, I was in class reviewing, then passing the written exam. As we headed to the pool on Saturday afternoon, I loaded my gear into my car then to the pool and questioned why I wasn’t doing more strength training at the gym. It was almost too much to carry the 50 lb. air tanks and then return for the gear bag that weighted about 50 lbs as well. Then we were loaded down with gear and took the “big step” off the edge of the pool and into the 12 foot water. Turns out the swim test was more difficult for me (it challenged me physically) than any of the scuba skills like  clearing your mask, switching to the alternate air source of your buddy, or having your air tank “turned off” at the bottom of the pool. Clearly, passing most of the skills is all about using your head.

Everyone else in our class of ten was talking about their big, upcoming scuba trip, which got me to thinking that I could probably dive in Greece when I traveled there at the end of May. Everyone in our group completed the pool skills that weekend and tried to figure out when they could do the four open water dives that were the final test. Some people do those on site of their exotic trip, but  really had no desire to waste precious vacation days running through the four certification dives in a lake or ocean when I could be enjoying the dives and exploring the area.

So the following weekend, I drove three hours to Lake Rawlings (an hour south of Richmond) for the two days of certification dives. I had a great dive buddy Dave, whom I met as we put on gear. The lake was still cool from the winter, but the April day was sunny. The two Saturday dives went well; it was exciting to be in the lake and performing skills on the underwater platforms. The Nottoway Motel’s restaurant reminded me of the Redwood in Lexington, which made me feel at home. By supper time, it was pouring buckets.

The next day, the rain had not let up. It was really quite chilly. I had recently read A Night to Remember, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic; I had also watched the new BBC mini-series. During that Sunday morning dive, I got very cold and started shivering as we waited our turn to navigate underwater, and I thought how much colder the Arctic waters would have been for those who did not make a lifeboat on the Titanic. I supposed that all those petticoats would not have been as warm as my 5 mm wet suit. Yet, here I was very cold; no wonder the survival rate in the Arctic was less than 20 minutes. We finished the dive, got out of our gear and suits, and tried to warm up for an hour in the cars as we ate our lunches. When we went to put our suits on for the final dive, the Dive Master saw me shivering. He correctly identified hypothermia and told me I couldn’t do the final dive. I was upset but realized he’d been right when I couldn’t get warm for the next day or so.

Determined to dive in Greece, I drove to the quarry near Haymarket, VA, two weeks later to complete my certification with the final dive. For reasons I still don’t understand, perhaps the tightness of the new 7 mm suit with the hood on, I started to have trouble breathing underwater when we reached the 12 ft platform to perform the mask removal. I felt as if there were a weight on my chest, but I focused on my breathing while the instructor tested the other students. When my turn came, I managed to get my mask off but not fully back on. In trying to clear the mask, I kept inhaling through my nose, instead of exhaling. I couldn’t manage to breathe in and out through the regulator or so it seemed with the suit so tight around my neck. I was having an underwater panic attack.

Quickly doing the math and realizing I wasn’t very deep at 12 feet, I decided to do a CESA (controlled emergency swimming assent, where you blow air out until you reach the surface). So, I spit out my regulator and made it to the surface, feeling pretty proud of myself for quick thinking. The Dive Master, who had been holding onto me the whole time and trying to force the regulator back into my mouth, was not so impressed. Upset might be a better adjective. I completed the other dive activities but not the mask removal. Even though he was very patient and went back into the water with me after everyone else was done, my stress and adrenaline made another attempt impossible that afternoon.

Having finished the classwork, the pool skills, and the first two dives, I qualified for a Scuba Diver certification, which meant I could in fact dive in Greece with a Dive Master and limited depth. I was terribly nervous to try again, but I reasoned that it would be good to get back in the water when it was for fun, not as part of a test. Sure enough, I love seeing a wreck and starfish and seaweed swaying like wheat on a prairie, not to mention swimming alongside the underwater volcano in Santorini. I was once again determined to get my full Open Water Diver certification.

In July, I practiced with a friend in a pool doing the mask removal, using my snorkel as a pretend alternator. (I quickly learned that this only works if the snorkel is NOT connected to the mask.) The first time I tried, my heart was in my throat as the memory of the panic attack came flooding back to me. In the end, however, I completed the task: the remove my mask, replace it, and clear it while remaining underwater.

I contacted my dive center, but it took till the end of September before I could coordinate a weekend to go back for the final dive. Since my last dive had been months ago, we agreed I’d do Dives 3 & 4. So, one sunny and warm Saturday morning, I headed again to the quarry near Haymarket. I had even planned to have friends over that night to celebrate in an effort to think positively. I arrived, suited up, and got the bad news: the quarry’s visibility wasn’t even six inches. The Dive Master canceled our group’s dives. Three tries down, but I reminded myself that two (low visibility and hypothermia) had been beyond my control.

We agreed to drive to Lake Rawlings the next day, and I offered one of the divers a ride. That morning, at 6:30 AM after I’d picked him up and when we were about 3 miles from his house, my car died. I won’t go into details about the sheer terror of driving a car and watching the speedometer go to zero as you continue down a highway or of pushing the car down a hill without power steering when your breaks aren’t working. My friend’s parents got up and drove his car over and, God Bless them, took care of my car, so we could drive and get certified. I had a moment when I wondered if maybe I should stay with my car, but we all agreed I really needed to try to dive. Just think: if I hadn’t offered to carpool, I’d have been alone when my car died, likely on I-95, and never would have made it to Lake Rawlings.

The lake was perfect, and I executed all the dives perfectly. The water was warm and crystal clear, and frankly, it was just a phenomenal day. Afterwards, we had an early supper to celebrate getting certified! After so many tries, it felt like quite the accomplishment! Thanks to my instructors in Alexandria for being amazingly supportive of me in this endeavor.

It was quite a saga, but the certification means so much because I had to work so hard for it. Kinda like that B.S. in Chemistry. Sometimes it’s good that I’m so stubborn…I mean Scottish.

Usually my posts are full of my adventures abroad, but I’ve come to realize that some of my domestic trips are awesome and also deserve some coverage…

This year I moved my annual trip to New York City from December to September (don’t get me wrong: I love the decorations, just not the biting cold and crowds). I can’t elaborate enough on how wonderful it is to get on a bus about half a mile from my apartment and not be the one driving up to the Big Apple. Sadly, I haven’t found the magical time to leave D.C. Over the last two years, I’ve tried the noon, 2 PM, and 6 PM buses and ended up in traffic somewhere along the way. Yet, hope springs eternal, and the visit is definitely worth the drive.

This trip I chose the 2 PM bus, so that I would not arrive so exhausted at 11:30 that I hug Samantha before I fall onto the sleeper sofa in her studio apartment. While this is my third visit with her in New York, I still can’t get over the fact that she has a Murphy bed. Somehow as a kid, I’d assumed that those had sadly disappeared with the 1960s, which filmed the movies  in which I learned of these amazing disappearing beds: one minute a living room, the next a bedroom! I will also admit that part of me loves coming to Greenwich Village/Manhattan because it is one of the few places in the good ol’ US of A that makes my apartment look like a steal!

Still, Sam’s place is really perfect: 5th Avenue near Greenwich Village, which was her dream when we were in college. The apartment building is old and complete with gilded elevators and lobby decor. It is close to so many cool and interesting things: we walk into Soho, we meander along the 5th Avenue shops, and we window-shop into the fabulous pastry and ice cream stores. In Soho, we ate at I Tre Merli, a fabulous Italian restaurant where I savored Ravioli di Cinghiale al Porto (homemade wild boar ravioli in a Port reduction sauce), perfectly paired with a lovely Montipulciano. I felt absolutely no guilt because Sam loves to walk. Each day I calculate we walked four to six miles; it was like a day in Europe.

(c) 2012 Kathryn Pharr

Because Sam is a walker, we also hike it along the High Line, which offers car-free strolling and lounging (courtesy of wooden beach chairs) along the historic freight line above Manhattan’s West Side. She first took me to the High Line last December on a particular cold day (25 Fahrenheit with winds) and insisted I should have the imagination to envision it covered in tourists and locals on a balmy summer day who were drinking cocktails and walking their dogs and generally enjoying the weather as if they had vacated the city altogether. This time, we tried a cold (but significantly warmer) Sunday morning, and I have to say that while I will one day get around to complaining about the heat while I’m at this park, I truly enjoy it even in the cold.

Seeing New York with a native (Sam’s first words were “Yo, taxi!”) brings the city to life in a way you never can capture as a tourist. She and Josh took me on a wonderful day trip to Governor’s Island, which though a free, 15 minute ferry ride from Manhattan, seems a world away. We had packed a picnic lunch and ate in the park watching ships and boats sail by the Statue of Liberty. The island was a Coast Guard station until 1996; one of our friends from college actually lived on the island for several years, which had its own schools. Now the island is a park with a fun playground (see photo to the left, we did not harm the actual Statue in any way that we will admit) as well as some lovely and interesting art galleries. The island is also partly a ghost town or that’s how it feels as you pass the dilapidated public library that is boarded up. Also, the stone church apparently has been de-sanctified. You pass what were clearly nice brick homes and then look out onto Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a big surreal and a great, affordable day trip while in the city.

(c) 2012 Kathryn Pharr

Another neat thing we were able to squeeze in was a visit to Little Italy for their annual Feast of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, a New York City tradition that began in 1926. More noticeable than the banners of Italian flags, the tonnes of cannolis for sale, and the carnival games is the fact that Little Italy is now less than four streets. On the positive side, most Italians have assimilated into the broader city culture–a noticeable contrast to the ever expanding Chinatown. Naturally, my favorite part of the festival was the stages were locals were singing Sinatra and Dean Martin–just classic.

Of course, no trip to New York for me would be complete without a show. At the South Seaport TKTS booth (which seems to have increased in popularity since my college days), we found tickets to Nice Work If You Can Get It. On the last trip, Sam, Josh, and I had seen Sutton Foster in Anything Goes, and with Nice Work having input from P.G. Wodehouse and music by the Gershwins, I figured we were in for a stellar evening. We sat in our great seats at the Imperial Theater and as the show progressed I couldn’t figure out when the Gershwins had written a play that had all their hits in it. I was pretty sure at least one song was from “O, Kay!” Turns out I was right. This is a new musical with the Best of the Gershwins that melds the plots of several of their musicals. The result is a light-hearted and fluffy fun musical comedy. Kelli O’Hare was brilliant, and it was great to see Matthew Broderick live. However, I have to say that for me Michael McGarth as Cookie McGee stole the show; he was incredible!

(c) 2012 Kathryn Pharr

And once again, another fabulous New York weekend–this time in Autumn. This last photo is of the new World Trade Center, which as Sam and Josh were quick to point out doesn’t actually fully fill in the whole left by the Twins.

(July 2012 continued)

Yes, it was cloudy. Yes, I had been waiting years since my photography had improved to attempt to capture Paris. No, I wasn’t too disappointed because I planned to turn everything into Black and White when I got home if the colors weren’t vivid. Oddly, the sun was out brightly by the time I arrived past my favorite bridge (Pont Alexandre III) to the Eiffel Tower.   I remembered walking past the bridge as Dad told us the plot for Faust that we’d see at the Bastille Opera House later that night. Then I started the walk back to the Latin Quarter.

(c) 2012 Kathryn Pharr

I was surprised to see so many ethnic restaurants. Somehow I didn’t remember so many Indian, Greek, and Kebab stands. Had they been around the last time and I just hadn’t noticed or had the variety increased?  Now there were rental bikes, like the Capitol Bikeshare in D.C., that tourists were using; those were definitely new.

Some things will always be Paris I thought as I noticed a long line of thin Parisian women covered in chic black clothes outside a building on their smoking break. It was a classic shot as some of the women sat on the stoop while others stood leaning against the wall. It took effort not to pull out my camera and snap them, but I was too close as I passed them.

Back in the Latin Quarter, I searched Shakespeare and Company, the famous bookstore owned by George who had invited Ceci and me to his English speaking Sunday afternoon tea during our last stay. George was legendary and a bit eccentric. He did staff his store with other vagabonds who slept in the store for free on the requirement that they read a book a day. He had told us how he was convinced that when he passed away the store would disappear into respectability to the pleasure of his neighbors. I had no idea if he was still alive and if the store would be there though part of me reasoned that it had surely become too much of a landmark to disappear even without its illustrious owner.

I breathed a sigh of relief taking in the friendly “SHAKESPEARE AND CO.” sign when I found the street near Notre Dame, but on walking in I noticed George was not in his “post” and a quick conversation with one of the workers confirmed that he had past away the year before. The women who own the store now have kept the feel of the place alive while having spruced and cleaned up a bit.

(c) 2012 Kathryn Pharr

I discovered another key piece of information about Paris: one should photograph Notre Dame in the evening. The sunset light illuminates the front facade perfectly. I was so exhausted I didn’t stay out very late and crashed in my little Parisian hotel.

The next morning I went down to the basement for breakfast. True I could have dunked my croissant into my tea at a local cafe, but I wanted to eat and then check out and time was precious. In fact, the basement looked like a room at the Musee du Cluny with its medieval walls and dim lighting. My first bite of bread was like heaven. Even the French bakery chain Paul which has expanded to D.C. couldn’t compare to this.

Soon I was wandering the streets again. The lines to every museum I wanted to see again were impossibly long for someone who needed to leave at noon. I started out in the Luxembourg Gardens. I had not realized until this trip that most of the statues are of women who ruled France; they were impressive and beautiful. In early morning, the garden was mostly full of joggers and a couple of disciples of Tai Chi. Somehow it was hard to imagine the palace as the Luftwaffe Headquarters.

My last event in Paris was lunch. I inspected several locations before deciding on a small cafe that had a good deal for an Orangina soda, a baguette sandwich with chicken curry and a chocolate tart. I sat outside under the shady trees and watched tourists enter the Palace of Justice to view St. Chapelle. I wish I had been able to attend the concert there the night before.

It felt like coming full circle. Once Paris was exotic and full of mystery. Once I saw her, as Sabrina did in the movie, as THE place to find yourself. Now, over ten years later, Paris is an old and dear friend who still had much to offer but whose exoticness had long ceased. Having traveled to the developing world in Asia and Africa, having lived in a multi-religious village in the Middle East, I know that stepping finding yourself can happen anywhere and that the challenges and rewards are not necessarily in the places where you or others think they will be. The familiarity compared to other places did not diminish the value. Though the “newness” had worn off, I was still in love with her. After all, it is Paris.