Christmas in the concrete jungle

Going home to the States always fills me with this swirling atmosphere of emotions that stays with me long after I leave. A desire to continue traveling, a longing to stay at home. A zest for meeting new people, a nostalgia for familiar faces. This time was no different. I landed at home just after midnight on the 17th of December, and headed into the city for the few days I’d spend there before parking myself on the couch surrounded by my four favorites in New Jersey.

It had been nearly seven months since I was last with Jose, and our grand reunion in New York was beautiful and blessed. We didn’t miss a beat, chatting and laughing and hugging for hours—just enjoying being in each other’s presence for the little time we had together. We always have so much fun together, and I could have spent all five days of our time catching up with him, but we had things to do, people to see and places to go!

The most important people on our list? Mama and Papa Hayden. We made the trip out to Hoboken to meet them for brunch at Elysian Café. Super cute little place, but packed for brunch! I could have hugged Dad for two hours (after not seeing him for a full year!), but the restaurant was hopping for Sunday brunch, so we had to take our seats. Brunch was super nice, we all got avo toast except for Dad (burger, classic), and Jose got to meet my creators. After brunch, we stopped off at Mom and Dad’s favorite German bakery for coffee and desserts, and talked for another hour or so before they had to head back home. It was so hard to say goodbye, even knowing I would see them again in just a few days. Being in their presences AND Jose’s was giving me a serious out-of-body experience (in the best of ways).

Next on the agenda? Sibling time!! I hadn’t seen Larissa since she and Mom were in Asia in July, when we met up in Bali (feels very glamorous to type this). But that trip was just a short weekend getaway, so I was very much looking forward to spending time with my favorite/only sister, and for Jose to meet her, too. We met up at her friend’s event taking place at the MoMA, a lecture on astrology and art, but more importantly, an open bar. I was already working above my normal excitement level, but then walked in and spotted Stacey London strolling through the gallery and honestly did not know if my cardiac parts would make it through the night (for the record, she had on a killer outfit that included a plaid Burberry jacket and white leather boots). Back to the story. Seeing Larissa was AWESOMEEEEE. Ironically, we made eye contact and hugged, but had to silently scream in glee because the lecture was taking place. She and Jose hit it off right away too, finding bonding moments otherwise known as “let’s ridicule Sam in jest” moments. The three of us had a few glasses of wine/beer, had our photo taken by the lovely event photographer, walked around the current exhibition, and said hello to some of Larissa’s friends. Afterwards, we walked around midtown and checked off a few tourist traps, just to say we did them (see The Tree, walk through Roc Center, and chicken rice from The Halal Guys for Larissa and Jose). We even stopped into Johnny Utah’s, the world’s most American bar (complete with country music and a mechanical bull), but we’d reached our threshold for tourist traps, and decided to go home around 10:45PM. As we drove past Madison Square Park in our taxi, we realized the ORIGINAL Shake Shack there was open until 11PM (the #1 site I wanted to share with Jose, obviously), and we brought our taxi driver to a startling halt as we hopped out to place our order before it closed for the night. We ate our crunchy fries and burgers (beef for Jose, mushroom for me) under the heat lamps and gazed up above the twinkling string lights at the beaming Empire State Building. I was finally home.

It was a day of bringing the most important people in the world to me together (think Matt had a hangover scheduling conflict), and it made the happiest lady anywhere in the world. I kept looking to my left and right and being overwhelmed with joy in every cell of my body. I was outside of space and time. Hallucinating total happiness. And it was only my first day Stateside!

I hadn’t planned a packed itinerary for us, as I knew I’d be a victim of jetlag, and I wanted us to be able to relax. In a city like New York, where there is so much to visit and see and eat, I’ve found that any sort of itinerary can get overpacked—and overwhelming—quite easily, so I chose a few sites (by that I mean restaurants) I wanted to show Jose, and left the rest to be played by ear. We had quite a lazy morning on Monday, as there was still much to catch up on, but got it together late in the morning and took the 6 train (a site in itself for a non-New Yorker) up to Central Park, where we strolled around for a few hours in the sunshine. Entering on the southeast side, we walked by the Jackie Onassis Reservoir, past the Boathouse, and over to the Upper West Side. We had been walking for a few hours and our stems were in need of a short rest, so we happened upon a quaint Irish pub for some low-light warmth and hot toddies. The pub owner could not have been more welcoming (but what do you expect from an Irishman?), and we stayed there until the sun went down, when it was time to meet Larissa in Brooklyn for a special night she had planned for us.

We met her at Paulie Gee’s, a well-known, wood-fired pizza spot in Greenpoint. I’ll add here that I had been holding myself off from grabbing a slice since the moment I landed which had given me the ITCH. I probably could’ve ordered four whole pies for myself, but was trying to keep things cool/socially acceptable. I cannot describe how satisfying that first (and second, and third) bite of pizza was—after the facsimiles they call “pizza” I’ve been eating all these months, it felt great to eat the real thing. Larissa had an aggressive itinerary for the evening: after all, if it’s all or nothing, is it Larissa? Following Paulie Gee’s we stopped off at a laundromat-turned-arcade-but-still-a-laundromat that felt very Brooklyn, and played a few games of pinball before heading to our next destination: a Polish bar that serves $1 Jell-O shots (I was quickly reminded why I shed weight soon after leaving New York). But we were trapped by a sad excuse for a comedy show, so bad that we really felt bad for the guy. But we got out of there as soon as we could, and headed over to Skinny Dennis to see some live (Christmas!!) music. I offered to buy a few rounds of drinks as we were rotating, and at one point the bartender asked me if everything was okay. “Sure,” I said, “maybe a little jet-lagged, but all good!” He stared at me and replied, “Well, you haven’t tipped me on any of the rounds you’ve bought tonight.” THAT’S RIGHT. I forgot about tipping. I forgot about New York. I forgot about the United States. I felt sooooo bad, so Larissa gave him some cash and we left quickly thereafter, in shame (to the bartender, if you are reading this, I am so sorry again and will be a tipping Skinny Dennis customer for life if you’ll let me!). Whoops!

The live music quest continued with our next bar, where an AWESOME band was playing more Christmas covers with a bluesy/jazzy/rock vibe. Super cool and super fun. It was great to see some great live tunes! I’d been in a serious drought living in Asia, whereas in New York seeing live music was a big part of my social life.

So, what was on the docket for Tuesday? More of my favorite things, of course: Ukrainian food!! (Luckily Jose is an extremely laid-back dude and was happy with anything I could’ve planned) No place better than Veselka for brunch. I did the ordering: a mixed spread of perogies, borscht, meat from the Polish butcher across the street, stuffed cabbage, etc. Mmmmm. I was super happy eating my favorite foods again, made by the experts, and Jose was happy with his first introduction to Ukie fare (he has not endorsed this statement, but considering he scooped up the last bites of my stubbed cabbage, I think it’s a safe one to make).

Tuesday daytime was a highlight for both of us. We didn’t do anything particularly exciting, but we left Veselka and went on a six-mile walk through the East and West Villages, as well as Soho and Flatiron. It was lovely to stop and sit in Washington Square Park, catch up on the last few months, and talk about exciting plans in the future. Nothing memorable happened on this day, but it was special to be together. I was also getting excited and antsy because Tuesday night meant drinks with Natalie and her boyfriend Tim, plus Berger and Mitch (celebrities featured in my Khao Sok post) for dinner! Best friend time, yay! After freshening up at our hotel in Union Square, we met Natalie and Tim at 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar with arguably one of the best views of the Empire State Building in all five boroughs. The seating areas were mostly reserved, but we managed to find a corner to ourselves to catch up, and for Jose, Natalie and Tim to introduce themselves. Warm and fuzzies are returning just writing this! We moved on The Smith for a second drink, as our rooftop seats were not nearly close enough to the heat lamps the bar had in place, and this Southeast Asia resident was still re-acclimating to the climate. The Smith was nice and cozy, super warm and more intimate too, so we could properly catch up and hear all the highlights from Natalie and Tim’s life, and share ours, too.

There really is nothing like being with your best friend—even having one is something I will never take for granted, especially now, living so far away. Even after a year of not seeing Natalie (albeit talking to her nearly every day), it was like we had seen each other yesterday. This was the first moment where I realized that one trip home a year is simply not enough. As we get older and our friendships start to change, the people you want in your life forever start to become very apparent. It’s important (and this is mostly a personal memo) to continue to invest in these relationships, spend time with them and make a point to understand what’s happening in their lives, and continue to expect the person on the other end to invest, too. True friendships, like the ones I have with Natalie and with others—from Berger, Roisin, Paddy, Timmy and Julie to Stephanie and Juliana and a few others, are invaluable. These are the ones that will take me into old age, the ones that will always offer me support and solace. I prize and cherish them above nearly all else, and feel immensely luckily that they’ve sustained the test of time and distance. Okay—soliloquy over!

I had this thought in my head the whole time I sat at the dinner table at Covina, surrounded by five of the people that I love most in this world. I felt so lucky and grateful to not only be able to live in an interesting and culturally rich place where I get to discover and explore every day, but also be able to return to a safe and supportive environment where people truly know who I am, what I am about, how to make me laugh, what I will always order. It’s a special thing to have memories to reminiscence on, and I know Tuesday evening will be added to the memory reserve, too.

The next day was an adventure day for Jose and I: we were trekking out to Branchburg! We were on the 9AM train, and Jose got to experience the life of a real New York City commuter, New Jersey Transit and all. Another great part of Wednesday? He finally got to meet the Man. The Myth. The Legend. Matthew Hayden. We hung out at the house for a few hours, drinking coffee (mainly jetlagged me), talking about Mom’s family history, growing up in Branchburg, Jose’s life in Portugal and in South America, and lots more (think Bitcoin made its way into conversation at some point, too). Then it was time for a drive: Dad had some work to do, but Mom, Matt, Jose and I hopped into Matt’s car for the cruise through Branchburg, past my high school, around the various farms and golf courses that make Branchburg what it is, and finally through downtown Somerville to pick up some yummy (what else?) pizza. We had lunch together as a family (just missing Larissa!), and Jose said his goodbye to my parents (for now!), and we headed back into the city around 3:30PM. It was such a lovely way to spend the day, and I’m glad Jose and I had time with my parents outside of Sunday’s brunch. Not to harp on the point, but bringing together the people I love most on this planet made my heart sing.

Wednesday night had in store for us more festivities: happy hour with friends at Spring Lounge! This week is a bit tricky for folks as many leave New York for their home cities, and quite a surprising number of my friends have left New York for new digs since I moved to Asia (looking at you, Paddy), but most of the essentials were there, and it was great to see them. A nice mix of college and post-college friends, and even some friends in town temporarily that were able to make it! I even got to meet two of Jose’s friends who are living in New York, which was wonderful as well! I was telling Vic that the whole party felt like a series of two-minute conversations with people I wish I could talk to for longer and she (a recent bride) said, “Yep, that’s exactly what a wedding’s like, too.” Being reminded of how much I love the people in my life (friends, family and my wonderful ex-colleagues who are now friends, too!) was another good reason to make 2018 the year of more trips home. Thanks to all who came out!

Thursday was our last full day in the city, as Jose’s flight left at 7PM that evening. So we made the most of it! Lunch at Gramercy Tavern, my favorite restaurant in New York (if you haven’t been able to tell from the average two times I reference Danny Meyer’s restaurants, like Shake Shack in my posts, this is your cue that I am a Denny Meyer devotee). I like Gramercy Tavern because, not only is the food delicious, but the space is gorgeously and seasonally decorated, and the staff is approachable and super kind, always. I always feel at home when I’m there. We were able to meet up with Fabrício, one of Jose’s friends from work who I had met the evening before, and overall lovely human being. Super nice lunch.

After saying goodbye to Fabrício, we went back to the hotel to pack up our things and call it a week. It was very sad to say goodbye to Jose as he hopped into the cab headed for JFK, but I felt consoled knowing that I’d see him just a few days after Christmas in New Zealand (where I am headed right now while writing this!). I was also looking forward to trading the chaos of New York for the sweet silence of Branchburg, and a few days celebrating Christmas with my family.

Matt picked me up from the train station on Thursday evening, and I would be lying by omission if I didn’t tell you our first stop was Shake Shack in Bridgewater. Cut me some slack, okay? There’s none of that goodness in Southeast Asia! (Danny Meyer, if you have someone miraculously found this blog, hear my call). We were meant to go to the movies to see Star Wars, but we decided for Larissa to come home and see it over the weekend, plus we were enjoying ourselves so much catching up at the Shack that we didn’t want to rush ourselves.

Friday was a mix of R&R and helping Mom get set up for Christmas, including watching her make her famous (some may say world-renowned) borscht. Better than Veselka—yes, I said it! There isn’t much to write over the course of Friday and Saturday, except for the fact that I was as happy as I can be laying on the couch watching movies with Dad, hanging in the kitchen cooking with Mom/mainly watching her cook, and kicking back with Matt. Larissa got home that evening around 7PM, and our home finally felt complete. Larissa was a bit sick so we kept things low key all day Saturday too, but did do some prep for Christmas, as we had to wrap gifts for all the little kiddies and get the house in shape to host 30 people on Christmas Day. The three girls of the family spent most of the day in the kitchen, and Mom even whipped out our old Ukrainian workbooks after we got into a discussion about how Larissa and I both want to re-learn our Ukrainian. It’s amazing how much you forget that you know! We ran through the alphabet and some of the books that Mom used to read to us, and it all came back to me very quickly. Larissa told me that she’d enrolled in some Ukrainian lessons at the Institute in New York ahead of her upcoming trip to Chernobyl, and it really inspired me. I hopped on Google and found a Russian Language Center in Singapore that offers Ukrainian group and private lessons for affordable prices (say whaaaat?). I emailed the instructor and am going to start my lessons on the 23 of January! They’ll take place twice a week for two hours. Working with Mom on the basics gave me quite a bit of confidence, reviewing all the words and phrases I remember easily, so I am hoping these lessons will build on that and get me to a conversational level in 2018. I can’t wait!

On Saturday night, Larissa, Matt and I went out to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, sneaking in all the Walgreens candy our pockets could fit. Good movie! Nothing like sibling time.

Sunday: Christmas Eve!! The two big days were finally here. Dad and I ran errands all morning for Mom: picking up the catering at the restaurant for Christmas Day, navigating the Christmas chaos at Wegmans. When Dad said he had errands to run I was quick to volunteer as his co-pilot: I always love driving around with Dad because he likes good music and you always know he’s good for interesting conversation. Around 3PM we left for Renata’s for Christmas Eve celebrations with the Ukrainian side of the family. Everyone was quite excited to hear about my upcoming Ukrainian lessons, as well as Larissa’s, and it was so nice to catch up with each and every person, although it was not nearly enough time. I would’ve loved to hear more about what everyone is up to in the coming weeks and months, but we’ll have to save it for my next trip sometime soon. I was also blown away by how quickly my little cherubs (cousins) are growing up—I know I sound like an old person, but it is amazing how much they’ve matured and how their personalities have formed. They too enjoyed watching the little kiddies tear through their gifts under the tree, leaving behind a flurry of wrapping paper that covers the entire floor. The buzz of kids opening fits at Christmas is one of my favorite parts of the holiday—there’s nothing like the energy that fills the room there. And Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner is my favorite meal of the year, and I got a second helping of nearly everything the house had to offer, especially the borscht. Yum. I cherish this Christmas Eve tradition so much, and I can’t wait to do it again in 2018.

We had quite a lazy morning on Christmas Day, not even touching the presents under the tree until 11AM. I woke up early, and enjoyed a cup of coffee (I can’t lie to my readers, it was like three cups) with Mom and Dad on the couch, and Larissa joined us soon after. We waited for Matt to wake up and wrap his presents, and then hit Santa’s gifts! I got lots of nice things, like a Bluetooth speaker and an epic “I Miss Barack” sweater, but really it was super meaningful just to be in the same room with the other four. This was another one of those moments where I kept getting these little pangs of joy from looking around at the place I was in and the people I was with, just reveling in the feeling of being drunk on joy.

In the afternoon on Christmas Day, we had Dad’s side of the family over for dinner, drinks and dessert. With 30 people packed into our house, it was hard not to get caught up in the Christmas cheer. Everywhere you looked at any point in the night, there were people laughing and hugging. It’s rare that we all get a chance to get together, even more so now that I live on planet Mars, so this was truly something special. And the food was a hit! We ate like queens and kings: lots of yummy appetizers, sautéed vegetables and chicken and creamy penne and Aunt Marie’s meatballs and so much more for dinner, and of course, overflowing desserts, from Grandma’s famous chocolate to gingerbread cookies to coconut crème pie. One of the best moments of the night came with Tim and Sue’s arrival and gifting to the three of us (Matt, Larissa and me) of indistinguishable gift bags. Opening each bag revealed a fresh Smirnoff Ice: we had been ICED. We hopped to the ground and chugged the Ices as law mandates. It’s worth noting here that Matt Hayden was able to finish his in 1/3 the time of his old-timer sisters. After most of our relatives left, Tim and Sue stayed for a bit afterwards to catch up, and Beth and Bob helped Mom and Dad clean up the kitchen and dining area. I was so beat from such a busy day of socializing, and fell asleep pretty much as soon as everyone was gone. It was a very memorable day for all of us!

Tuesday was purely savory, spent on the couch with my parents and siblings and picking over the plentiful leftovers we had from the two days of eating we had before. We thought of going to the movies in the afternoon as a family, but instead decided to stay put in our pajamas and watch some films in the living room. We watched a PBS Beatles documentary produced by Ron Howard, as well as the Jerry Seinfeld standup on Netflix, and some other standup specials that Netflix suggested to us. Again, nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s these lazy days that I remember most from my time home (this year and last). They’re something you can’t replicate over FaceTime.

This trip felt quite different from my holiday at home in 2016. I am more settled in Southeast Asia now, I have a boyfriend now, I have close friends and a job I feel happy with there, and so much has changed. But it was still just as hard to say goodbye to my Mom and dad at JFK earlier this morning. I feel lucky to have them as parents, the best ones anyone could ask for, and it is hard to leave them behind in pursuit of my personal voyage. I was extra cognizant this year of the gratefulness and warmth I feel being at home, something so many don’t or can’t experience. This year, I am headed back to Southeast Asia feeling more secure, more optimistic, but never more ready. My home and heart will always be on the East Coast, and even taking off from the airport just a few hours ago, I was already excited to be with the people I love most once again. Put simply, there’s no feeling in the world, across the East or the West, that compares.

A few photos from my trip home:

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