The Bearable Lightness of Being

Some folks like to get away
Take a holiday from the neighborhood
– Billy Joel, New York State of Mind

Not me. I’m more of a staycation kind of person, which like being an introvert, is an advantage during a global pandemic.

I’ve played tourist in New York City while living across the Hudson in Hoboken, N.J. How else would I have discovered gems like The Jewish Museum that had a Chagall exhibit at the time, and two other less well-known museums on the northern reaches of 5th Avenue?  El Museo has a collection of Caribbean and Latinx artists you rarely see elsewhere, and you won’t do better than the Museum of the City of New York, for a dose of history and view of the diverse citizenry that make NYC unique. I had never been to Ellis Island before my NYC staycation, either, though my spouse’s mother passed through there as a 3-year-old arrival from Poland. As an immigrant myself, I found it intensely moving to stand at the foot of a towering exhibit of all the suitcases and trunks donated by other people who first laid eyes on this country from New York Harbor. If objects could talk, what stories these might tell!

A few years and another staycation ago, we rented an AirBnB guest house in nearby Flamingo Park (West Palm Beach) for a long weekend, partly to test if the walk score of 83 was accurate. Yes, but only in Downtown. The average for WPB is more like 43, though the public jitney makes many things nearer. From where we were situated, we had easy access to The Armory Arts Center and the new Grandview Public Market developing just across the railroad tracks, and to The Norton, where we are members of long-standing. Flamingo Park itself is filled with beautiful stucco homes, some of historic interest, and we enjoyed just walking and taking photographs. Of course, someone had put up a little free lending library by their walkway. The Antique Row was also an easy stroll for morning coffee and window shopping, and it wasn’t too much of a stretch to Flagler and the waterfront. (BTW, if you’re interested in walkability and how it raises the value of housing stock, you might want to check out this article from Strong Towns.)

Now that exercise, cooking and eating healthier have become even more central to well-being, I content myself with 2-3 visits a week to Grassy Waters Preserve and with a heightened attention to where I source our food. I have always enjoyed grocery shopping and after all these years here, remain in awe at the abundance available to the average American. But the new normal means making different choices. Not so much stocking up at Costco (though I like how they treat their employees), but shifting my business to smaller purveyors like the produce and Asian specialties spot near me, or its neighbor, a well-established organic supermarket. Neither is ever crowded at the times I choose to go, and both observant of CDC guidelines for masks and barriers. It maybe a while before I’m near real farmers markets with locally grown and raised offerings, let alone New York’s Chinatown, but small is ever beautiful.

As Joanie Mitchell sang, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,’ the months-long closing of Grassy Waters for repairs made me realize how important it was (and still is), to have a complete reset of pace, mood and mind throughout your day, however you manage it. As I step onto that boardwalk, I can feel my shoulders soften and my breath deepen. I’ll sniff the air like the animal I am, for a whiff of what other living things are out there (preferably not another of my species wearing cologne). I love knowing that, to the various inhabitants of this pristine wetlands (and fresh water source for West Palm Beach) — even the larger creatures like bobcats, deer or wild boar — I’m no big deal. I’m just a part of the scenery, of what goes on here:  an alligator’s leisurely swim along one of the waterways; an anhinga warming its wings; a Moorhen couple; bright green lizards; the croaking of a bullfrog; and even, one day on a picnic, a shy little girl with her father, drawn to the sound of my daughter’s live harp music. Perhaps, it’s a shift in perspective worth cultivating for the long haul, even when vaccines have made the world safe again for hubris.

We usually do a couple of rounds on the boardwalk, then find an open tiki hut and rocking chairs to sit for a short meditation. The thatch overhead is fragrant. The reeds bend to the wind. It’s not escape I’m seeking so much as simply being still, because there is no getting away from the neighborhood of the here and now.

Staycation: Hidden Gems in Your Own Backyard

Stay·ca·tion, stāˈkāSHn, noun, a vacation spent in one’s home country rather than abroad, or one spent at home and involving day trips to local attractions.

Ours may be the age of travel bucket lists — we’re 76 and 82 — and if that’s your thing, great! We decided to staycate and be footloose in West Palm Beach, about 12 miles south of where we live, and trade our local Walkscore of a meh 21 for something significantly higher. What follows is our version of the 36 Perfect Hours in … format.

Our intention was to experience what gets missed when you’re rushing by in a vehicle: how the locals live; what the world looks like from one of their windows; where they walk their dogs; whether they stop to converse (yes); shop for food; how they enjoy the common space: streets, gardens, parks, galleries. Thumbs up for traffic-calming islands and a slower pace.

Thanks to Airbnb, we found what we were looking for in the Flamingo Park (Walkscore 77) area of West Palm Beach. It came as no surprise that this neighborhood of Mission and Spanish Revival homes built between 1921 and 1928, many of them lovingly restored, has earned a Historic Residential District designation.

So far, we have had mostly excellent experiences with Airbnb, including a long stay in Providence, RI, to which we’ll return this summer. But we’d put Coconut Cottage in Flamingo Park, a semi-detached studio space that once served as our host’s Pilates studio, at the top of the list: pristine, tasteful, with an eye for maximum comfort and convenience, and of course, location. The Armory Arts Center, where one of us once regularly attended life-drawing sessions, was less than a half-mile away. The Norton Museum, soon to close for the final phase of its expansion, was also a leisurely 10-minute stroll away.

As an aside, we are huge fans of Airbnb for some less obvious reasons. We like being part of the sharing economy. We like meeting new people and having an insider’s view of their community. Philosophically, we’re on the same page with Airbnb founders, who recently wrote in an email: We believe that travel is a transformative and powerful experience and that building bridges between cultures and communities creates a more innovative, collaborative and inspired world. Amen!

Day 1: We began our first evening with a short walkabout that turned more into a pause, take picture, stroll, repeat. At a home on Lake Avenue, we stopped to browse the titles at a Little Free Library (70,000 libraries in 85 countries), picking up Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. In its place, I plan to donate Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, found in Pawtucket Village’s Little Free Library last summer. See how that works?

Howie at LibraryNext, Art After Dark, the Norton’s signature program, and currently free along with access to the collection, while the Museum undergoes extensive renovation. The courtyard was offering the mellow sounds of keyboardist, Bashaum Stewart, with vocalist, Brittany Lustig, in a program of pop and soul classics, and an outstanding rum-based cocktail for $5. Art classes and lectures were going on simultaneously. A WPB treasure, the Norton will close July 16, and reopen in 2019.

Friends had recommended the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, 716 N. Sapodilla, and it didn’t disappoint. Doro Wot (National Dish), a spicy chicken concoction and a vegetable sampler with injera, the delicious spongy bread made from teff flour, was perfect shared by two, along with St. George’s Amber, an Ethiopian brew. Utensils optional. Friendly service, recorded world music, and native artifacts made this a very attractive destination. We’ll be back!

Day 2: Local friends joined us for a neighborhood stroll and breakfast at City Diner, 3400 S. Dixie, near Antique Row, one of the friendliest places around, even welcoming of our friend’s service pup. As former residents of New Jersey (Exit 154), we have pretty high standards for diners, especially their breakfasts. City Diner’s breakfast special: two eggs how you like them, with home fries and rye toast at $5.99 is pretty hard to beat. Décor: 50’s memorabilia. At meals other than breakfast, the scuttlebutt is: order the special, Honey. Walkable from our Airbnb, but in cooler weather.Flamingo house

Closer to noon, we walked off breakfast in the direction of The Armory Arts Center to check out a student exhibit (artist faculty: Deborah Adornato and Sam Perry). We’ve attended Salons here and many exhibits over the years. The faculty exhibits are always worthwhile. Another local treasure.

After a short break at ‘home’ and a cup of tea, we drove down Dixie Highway/US 1 to Lake Worth, to the Stonezek, a tiny indie film house (and Black Box theater) that is a favorite of ours. With just enough time before the 4:15 showing of On the Seventh Day  – don’t miss — (Spanish/English with titles), we stumbled upon Victoria’s Pisco Lounge, 806 Lake Avenue (just a few months old, though they have a sister restaurant in Lantana), where a World Cup game was in progress on several screens. The atmosphere said Spain or a Latin country. We shared a Peruvian beer and ceviche (perfect, served in a martini glass), plus the Causita Trio (mashed potatoes with aji Amarillo and lime) topped with tuna, chicken and crab meat salads. As good as Ceviche Arigato on Northlake Blvd., Lake Park. Victoria’s Happy Hour menu is 4-7 pm, and they are open until 2 am, (R U?)

Back to West Palm Beach to the Clematis Street area – somewhat less lively than usual for a Friday evening due to a torn up street in a key block. Our destination was Subculture Coffee, 509 Clematis, for a cappuccino and pastry. This is worth a stop for the ambience alone, but dang! that cappuccino was out of the ordinary. EinsteinSubculture has a great little courtyard that I once considered for a spoken word performance, but this evening it was filled with young people attending some kind of costume event. You can get tacos and some Indian appetizers from the sidewalk café, too. Next door, Longboard’s has given over to Kapow! Asian Fusion, at 519 Clematis. Next time.

Day 3, before check out. Flamingo Park for early breakfast was calling us, this time toward the Armory, where a search had revealed the Grandview Public Market, just over Parker Avenue and the railroad crossing. Here we found great coffee and a bagel at Rabbit, just one of a collection of eclectic eateries. Palm Beach County’s first food hall, we hope for their success. See Palm Beach Post’s Liz Balmaseda.

Next time, in cooler weather: Society of the Four Arts, long hike/bike on Flagler along the Intracoastal, and Antique Row. Staycaters, unite!