Category Archives: culture

One last stop, and thoughts on Puerto Rican independence (Part ii)

Before heading to the airport to return to Chicago, we made one last stop: to Panadería la Ceiba.

“Most of the bakeries in San Juan are run by old Spanish guys,” Gil, Vanesa’s husband told me. La Ceiba is a sort of deli-style bakery with concrete floors, white walls, and lots of typical Spanish dishes.

“Did you see the desserts?” Vanesa’s dad asked me, pointing to the cases filled with Spanish pastries and desserts.

Vanesa ordered for the lot of us – Gil, her dad, her brother, her sister-in-law and baby niece, and me. They ordered Cuban sandwiches and seafood paella and other tapas to share.

“You probably understand him better,” Gil mentioned to me, indicating the blue-eyed Spaniard with the weathered tan who was serving us. I ordered a tortilla española. It had been so long since I’d had a good one; since it seems the only good tortilla españolas are to be found in Spain. (It was okay; finding a good tortilla española outside of Spain remains elusive.)

To end the meal, Vanesa’s dad ordered a plate of quesitos to share. “You can find these anywhere in Madrid,” he said, grabbing one of the long, flaky pastries filled with sweet cream cheese.

There seems to be some pride in their Spanish heritage in Puerto Rico. They speak the language. And for 400 years, they were Spain’s colony. It shows. The language, the food (the quesitos!), the whole quarter of Old San Juan feel very Spanish. With a Carribean twist.

In 1898, the U.S. took Puerto Rico as its own “unincorporated territory”. And while we ate, Gil and Vanesa’s brother Luis, took their time to explain to me Puerto Rico’s situation – from a Puerto Rican perspective.

“We’re a stupid ass colony,” Gil said, not one to mince words. Vanesa’s family are independentistas. They don’t want to be an “unincorporated territory” of the United States. They certainly don’t want to be a state. They want to be their own country.

“We independentistas are in the minority. It’s about 10% of us. Typically the more educated Puerto Ricans are pro-independence. Other Puerto Ricans want to be a state, because they think it’ll make us instantly rich. ‘We’ll be like Miami!’, they think.” Gill laughed.

“What do you think would happen if Puerto Rico gained independence?” I asked.

“Well, it would be hard at first,” Gil said, and left it at that.

It was time to head to the airport. After kisses on the cheeks and goodbyes and gracia’, it was good to meet you, see you in Chicago, Gil, Vanesa, and I drove the rental car back to the airport, to leave that sunny island and head back to the urban north. It was time.

8 Days in Puerto Rico (Part I)

Puerto Rico is many things. It’s Spanish. It’s American. It’s Caribbean. And frankly, I hardly feel qualified to write anything about it at all, which is perhaps why it’s taken me over a month to work up the nerve to write this post, because who am I to say anything about Puerto Rico?

Luckily, I did get to visit Puerto Rico with Puerto Ricans, who helped me see a side of Puerto Rican that most tourists don’t get to see.

The idea to go to Puerto Rico started out at Three Dots and a Dash, a trendy new cocktail tiki bar in Chicago. Heather and I were there hanging one night with our friends Vanesa, who is from Puerto Rico, her husband Gil, and Mariana and Alex. Vanesa said, “hey, we’re going to Puerto Rico during Semana Santa (Holy Week). Wanna come?”

Yes, we said. Yes, we did want to come. The next day, we booked our tickets, and started planning our trip to Puerto Rico.

That’s how trips start, you know. With simply the decision to go.


So, here goes.

Day 1

We take the flight with Vanesa and Gil from cold, dreary Chicago to the sunny skies and blue waters of Puerrrto Rico! This was in April, and believe me, in April, Chicago is still cold and dreary.

We land, pick up our rental car, and head to our hotel, Da House (despite the name, perfectly charming…), right in the heart of Old San Juan. We parked our stuff in the hotel and then set out to explore the streets. (Vanesa and Gil had headed to their family’s house, where we later joined them for dinner.)

For the first time in months, I felt the sun’s warm rays on my skin again. Every time this happens, it’s like I’ve forgotten that such pleasant weather can actually exist. And then summer comes again, and I forget all about winter. (My short-term memory for the weather is probably the only thing that gets me through living in this climate.)


Day 2

Time to leave San Juan! In Puerto Rico, a rental car is practically indispensable, unless you plan to spend all your time just in Old San Juan. Even San Juan is largely navigable only with a car. We spent the morning exploring Old San Juan again, walking those charming, colonial streets, eating mallorcas and drinking cafés con leche. A mallorca is a pastry from the Spanish island of Mallorca, where it’s called an ensaimada. Vanesa’s dad told us that in Puerto Rico, they started calling them mallorcas, because that’s where they’re from, and the name stuck.

From there, we drove to the west side of Puerto Rico, where we would be joining Vanesa’s family for a few days on the beach. We went to Cabo Rojo/Boquerón, a place, Vanesa told me, that was more “internal tourism”. Puerto Ricans vacation there much more than Americans do. (Americans apparently go to Rincón.) So Heather and I headed to our Airbnb digs of… a tent. I’ll admit that I had my reservations. Sleeping in a tent in the jungle of Puerto Rico was more Heather’s idea of a good time than mine, but we made shrimp scampi in the attached outdoor kitchen and listened to the coquis all night long, and all was well. (It was really a pretty extravagant tent.)


Days 3-4

Beach time! Basically, this:

heather on the beach

There’s something about sand and sun and lapping sea water that just feels so indulgent.

New Orleans: a Personal History in Three Acts

I: August 2008

My relationship with New Orleans began in 2008, because one of my oldest, and dearest friends, Kijai, had moved there in 2007. At the time, I was one year out of college and working at a coffee shop in Chicago. I pulled together the money for a plane ticket, and took a week-long trip to visit Kijai in New Orleans in August.

That was bad planning. August is a terrible time to go to New Orleans. Between the heat and the humidity, I remember spending one afternoon lying lifelessly on my air mattress, trying to cool down.

But at the same time, I fell in love… here was a city like no other. Kijai’s apartment, for example, was a shotgun – rooms stacked one behind the other with relatively high ceilings, to promote natural cooling. Her roommate was Cajun, born and bred an hour and a half southwest of New Orleans on the bayous. She told me how the Acadians — later slurred to Cajuns — were exiled from Canada under British rule due to their refusal to give up their Catholicism “in 1755. I’m not too good with dates, but I remember that one”, and shipped along “like slaves”, never finding a place of acceptance until they reached the bayous of Louisiana. She told me, “in France we lived on the coast of Normandy, and in Canada we lived along the coast. So when we arrived in Louisiana, we felt right at home.”

I love history. I soak up that information. And perhaps what I love most about New Orleans is its mixed, varied history.

II: May 2011

In 2011, I went to New Orleans for the second time. What I really remember of that winter prior to my trip was how long and cold it was. This time, I was graduated from grad school, had returned to Chicago after a year in Spain, and had spent the past several months working at a publishers (at last). I was also broken up with due to that year in Spain (long distance, it turns out, almost never works), making that winter endlessly cold and painful, and so, I went back to New Orleans – back to the warmth, humidity, and Kijai.

It turns out, May is also not a good time to go to New Orleans. When I arrived, it was in the 90s. Another afternoon lying limp on the couch. But once again, I fell in love. New Orleans restored my soul. By the time I returned to Chicago a week later, it was summer, and things had changed.

III: February 2013

This time around, I had to go to New Orleans for one last time, because Kijai might be moving. She’s over New Orleans: over the heat, the bugs, the constant parties, the city life. She wants a quiet farm life in Massachusetts. So I had to go down there for one last visit while she was still there. We sat outside of Velvet, an espresso bar, (a favorite find of mine), drinking lattes as the February sun beamed warmly on our skin, and I said, “it’s the end of an era; maybe the last time we’ll all be in New Orleans together”, and she said, “well, you never know.”