The Weekender: 36 Hours in Portland, ME

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Christian and Red looking sad and lost in Old Orchard Beach boardwalk.

Christian and Red looking sad and lost in Old Orchard Beach boardwalk

 

I looked out the rear window to see the tiny umbrella-ed buckets of the ferris wheel dip down out of sight into an electric haze of neon lights as we drove away from the Pier in Old Orchard Beach. The stench of cigarettes and fried food had finally faded giving way to delicious licks of crisp, salt air as we whipped up the New England coast toward Portland, Maine.

We were told Old Orchard was just a short trip away from Portland, our Memorial Day destination. We were told it was a nice, family beach.

It was not.

Now, I’m not a particularly domestic or maternal person and perhaps if I was A.) single B.) drunk C.) child-free I would have enjoyed hitting the steamy streets of Old Orchard packed with spray-tanned bros but my baby needs to be able to hang. (He’s with me.)

So, after traversing the seemingly endless racks of Ed Hardy shirts in search of Baby Sun Tan lotion, we made our way toward Portland, before the girl chain-smoking by the pool could even finish her pack. Red in tow.

Greetings Sinners!

Established as a fishing and trading village then famously surviving four fires, Portland is a city of craftsmanship and rebirth. You can see it in the architecture; cobble stone streets lined with revitalized warehouses and renovated commercial buildings. You can see it in their food with culinary breakthroughs continually topping national lists due to an ever-evolving restaurant scene including over 300 restaurants, food trucks, pop-up shops, and farmer’s markets. Everywhere bright, young things contrast the foundations of a hardworking New England seaport like a rose blooming from concrete.

As one Portlandian puts it; “I’ve never lived anywhere where people are more innovative. Everybody is so forward-thinking and always on to the next thing.” says Jacob Perry, Producer at WGME CBS 13 News. “I mean, they are about to ban plastic bags. They really care about the place where they live and everyone is constantly looking for ways to make it better.”

Like the storied “Hipster” of Millenial icons, a persona with which many of the tatted up, bespectacled locals bedraggled in their plaids can identify with, Portland is rugged yet designed, traditional yet cutting-edge. Or maybe, Portland is just HIP.

12pm. Brew Hop

I can’t think of a better way to end a long drive and kick off vacation than a cold beer overlooking the ocean.

Pick up a map from The Maine Brewer’s Guild here: http://www.portlandmaine.com/maps/beer-trails/.

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3pm. Walk around the Old Port

This 3×5 block radius of historic downtown is now more shopping than shipping. Wander through the mix of old shipping offices and warehouses turned galleries, bookstores, craft shops and eateries.

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5pm. Dinner and Drinks

Portland has earned major cred in the foodie world as being one of the top spots for local, simple, good food and drink. Kick cocktail hour off with a dozen from Eventide Oyster Co. paired with a mezcal Moscow Mule (mezcal, lime, gingerbeer). Then  Portland Hunt and Alpine Club for a craft cocktail whose menu ranges from a classic restoration cocktail like the Final Word to the tiki- inspired Jungle Bird. Finish out with a late night snack from the basement beer cafe, Navare Res. Binge on tuna tartar and a cheese board like an adult.

8pm. Jam out.

Visit Portland’s Art District for a concert at either of Portland’s music halls One Longfellow Square or Port City Music Hall. These venues have hosted the Phish-y deep-funk duo, Soule Monde; the psychedelic folk artist Lisa/Liza and the bluesy soul sounds of Ray LaMontagne. Both offer performances and events most days of the week.

12am. (respectively) Rest those tired bones, we still have another day!

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9am. Grab some breakfast.

For a savory, sit down brunch hit Hot Suppa, a creole joint on Congress St. known for their Bloody Mary’s and Mac and Cheese. Or grab and go at South Portland’s 186 Pickett Street a homey bagel shop with a backyard and nutella muffins.

10am. Spend the morning walking around Fort Williams Park.

Wander the 90-acre park checking out city landmarks like the Portland Head Light, the well-preserved Fort Williams and the former officers’ quarters at Goddard Mansion.

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12pm. Head back into the city to the most popular lunch spot in Portland, Duckfat.

They had me at fries and milkshakes.

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1pm. Spend the afternoon shopping:

Your heart will flutter down Exchange Street browsing handmade cards, boutique jerky (not a typo- JERKY) at Portland Trading Co., floral print wrap dresses and whimsy vintage novelties at Pinecone and Chickadee.

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3pm. Don’t forget to stop by The Holy Donut for some tasty treats like Sweet Potato Ginger and Dark Chocolate Sea Salt donuts for the car ride home. Just don’t promise anyone donuts, they won’t last the whole car ride! (You know who you are… ;)

5pm.  For dinner, go casual at Nosh Bar “where omnivores assemble”. The menu totes corn dog appetizers, fries with all the frills, and a French Dip that trades out the au jus for Pho broth.

And that concludes a successful weekend in Portland.

Christian and Red after a successful weekend in Portland.

Photo Friday: Miss Varela’s Best Practices

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There is nothing more intimidating than standing in front of a room full of teenagers. They have an incredible talent at looking bored. However, last week I was asked by the ever so inspiring Kara Waters of the art department at Hanover High School to guest speak on photography and storytelling.

Here is an overview of what I decided to fill those up-and-coming image-makers’ young minds with…My best tips for creating photos like a PRO (aka what I’ve learned the hard way):

1. A great photo is created. It helps to know what you want. What images are you looking to come back with? What do you want to communicate? Create a shot list, know where you need to go and who you need to see. Get there, set up, wait for your shot


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2. Know your exits and entrances. Every good spy knows their exit strategy. Likewise, since no one is going to stop the show for you (atleast they don’t for me…), it is important to be able to move quickly around what it going on without drawing attention to yourself. Go to rehearsals, get schedules, talk to the other people working it including DJs, announcers, anything that will give you a good idea of what will happen and when so you can be where you need to be at the right time.


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3. Don’t be shady. Too often I find baby photographers who want to hide their camera to “not look like a tourist” or “not stand out” as a photographer. But that is what you are: a photographer and tourist. I have found it is much safer to have open and honest body language. Stalking around, partially hiding your camera is creepy and counterproductive.

4. Ask permission. Continuing on my previous point, I have found that despite many people’s reluctance to be photographed, most are willing to be in an image if you just ask. It is always polite and professional, not to mention an opportunity to direct the shot. Stumble upon a bunch of chefs laughing together on their break before dinner service or a street musician polishing his saxophone between sets? Just ask: “Do you mind if I photograph you just like that?” Often just holding up your camera and raising my eyebrows gets me a nod or a shake.


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5. Be flexible. Leave room for error (because there will inevitably be some). Bring back up batteries, memory cards, Band Aids, tape, plastic bags  (instant water proofing!) and don’t take yourself too seriously. The best photos always come from having fun!


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6. Most importantly, know when to be a photographer. I once attended a dinner out in the countryside of Argentina. It was a private family event to celebrate Father’s Day to which I had the privilege of being invited. That morning, I walked through a small garden of clementine trees out to a yard that overlooked their vineyard. Smoke rose from a grill where two men heaved whole halves of animals on to the grates and I watched the women of the family file out into the yard carrying boxes of wine, salads, and bread to the table. I relented not having my camera with me to document a scene so sublimely beautiful. This was good stuff! But I wasn’t invited as a photographer. I was invited as a guest. On your shoots and locations, you can be Warrior Photographer but other times you need to be yourself. Don’t spend the whole time beating yourself up about all the “missed shots”, work towards creating opportunities for the best shots and that includes making real connections.

Seeing Red: The birth of my son and in a way, myself.

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Red in Slumberland.

Red in Slumberland.

Well he’s here. My son.

At 6:21am, Red Oliver Varela came into the world roaring with life. I screamed when I saw him. Not a painful scream, I had only phantoms of legs and nether regions thanks to a great epidural, but a surprised and startled (embarrassing) scream. Looking at him in radical amazement, he was the conclusion of everything I had felt during pregnancy, the push and pull of this sort of becoming.

My whole pregnancy I wanted nothing but to feel like my body was my own again. It was a small frustration at first, sparking in the extra motivation it took each morning to get going after I gave up my coffee ritual or as quick and passing as the momentary pains when I would bump into something behind the bar, unfamilar with my new volume and dimensions.

Then I started crying. In the beginning only while listening to sad songs or happy commercials. Then I started crying over watching music videos that reminded me of all my nights out in the city, the lights, the dancing, the potential for anything to happen, the defiance with which we all faced the world, the sunrise. (damn you Calvin Harris and David Guetta.)

I started crying over the work I couldn’t complete because I was just too tired or too unfocused. In all honesty, there was no point in trying. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing anyway because somehow I had become bad at all the things I was good at, even relaxing.

I realized I had not gone into the baby’s room the entire time we have lived here except to deposit gifts and things I collected for him. I’m supposed to be blissfully happy. I’m supposed to be glowing. I’m supposed to be a god damn goddess of nature and miracles and life!

But instead I was an anxious, fearful mess that couldn’t quite wrap my head around why I would possibly do this to myself. Why would I invite this little person into my life of too much coffee, too late nights, plane ticket roulette, spend it all, see it all,  defy tomorrow!

I wondered when I would become this mother. Maybe it took the time it takes to wear in a new set of heels or for the stiff spine of a new book to soften. At times, I was completely distraught that I may never accumulate the abundance of selfless love a parent has for their child.

Love at first sight.

Love at first sight.

They placed him in my arms and I was stunned by the intensity, the immediate shifting of things. All this time, I didnt realize the biggest part of me was growing inside. All of the things I searched and longed for about myself were being funneled into shaping this little being. To nourish him with life and personality so that when he came out he was immediately recognizable. Mine. Mine. MINE.

How natural.  This whole time I was afraid my greatest adventures were behind me, my wildest dreams extinguished.  But holding him; in the heat of the instincts, the hormones, the love, the hope, everything was made possible again. I was on a fast train to something exciting, something permanent: motherhood. What is a grander adventure than that?

My family, my loves.

My family, my loves.

The Maine Event: Eventide Oyster Co.

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“It’s not a very romantic story.” Said Christian of his start into the food industry. He is the Provisions International Specialty Goods Salesman and my adoring “Baby Daddy” (Is that the correct term? I’m new at this…)

One of the ways Christian and I connected when we first met was our mutual passion for food and great restaurants. Together, we continue to explore new eateries whenever we find ourselves with the rare opportunity to spend a day together. Which is what brought us to Portland: food. Because as a former chef, he has a lot to say and now that I’m pregnant, I have a lot to eat.

Portland’s gastronomic potential was first spotted when the Locavore Movement began to turn the tables on American cuisine toward food made with sustainable products found close to home. With an abundance of fresh fish and small town charm, Portland quickly rose to its fame as one of the “foodiest towns in America” (Bon Appetit, 2009).

Our traveling concluded at Eventide; the restaurant co-owned and adjacent to Portland’s culinary darling Hugo’s. The restaurant that also catapulted Christian into the industry. His first love.

“I worked at Hugo’s for Rob [Evans].” Christian explained wistfully of his motivation to begin his career in Hugo’s kitchen that later launched him into the sous chef positions at Vermont’s boutique destination Simon Pearce and New Hampshire’s Dartmouth retreat, The Hanover Inn.

“I walked in a week after he won the James Beard Award. He won, he took me on, I showed up a week later and fell in love with it. I loved the way he talked about food. I loved the way he ran his kitchen and I loved the food coming out of it.”

Evans has since left the establishment, leaving it to the direction of his three best knife-slinging successors; Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley who continue to transform New England fare with their inventive menus.

Eventide is their newest, solo venture. Here are some postcards from our culinary cruise.

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While guests grab a beer from the bar, they can browse a wide selection of locally and internationally sourced oysters on display.

While guests grab a beer from the bar, they can browse a wide selection of locally and internationally sourced oysters on display.

A not-so traditional lobster roll on a simple sub roll with big chunks of lobster. Light and fresh with house mayo and hints of dill. For a sweeter note, have it blended with hollandaise or brown butter vinaigrette.

A not-so traditional lobster roll. Light and fresh with house mayo and hints of dill. For a sweeter note, have it blended with hollandaise or brown butter vinaigrette.

Sweet and salty squash fritters.

Sweet and salty squash fritters.

Bonito potatos

Bonito potatos

Grilled octopus sliced to the thinness of pasta with kimchi, lemon grass and topped with garlic chips.

Grilled octopus sliced to the thinness of pasta with kimchi, lemon grass and topped with garlic chips.

Razor clam with uni hot sauce and bread crumbs.

Razor clam with uni hot sauce and bread crumbs.

Photo Round Up: Chris, Meredith and Benjamin

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I met Chris while working in the Hanover Inn’s catering department last winter. As we set up events, we would all talk amongst ourselves about our home-life, relationships, new endeavors. Throwing the linens up to unfold themselves in mid-air and flutter down to blanket the table in crisp white, Chris would always talk so enthusiastically about his wife Meredith and their son Benjamin. 

it was only the other day I had the pleasure of meeting them both when I shot their Christmas portraits and found them to be even more wonderful than their storied selves. Benjamin is bright and curious. Meredith is beautiful and welcoming, making me feel like a friend immediately. 

With such a warm and affectionate family; admittedly, this was an easy shoot. It was a true pleasure and I look forward to getting to know them as time goes on! Happy Holidays Leblancs!

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This is Paradise: Pearl Harbor Memorial

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Working as a journalist, I have come to work very closely with both soldiers and veterans. As someone who also suffers PTSD, their stories and wisdom have helped me navigate my own fickle emotional state throughout the years. This Veteran’s Day, I’d like to share one of the most moving trips I have taken while traveling and encourage you all to not only remember our fallen soldiers but let them inspire you with their strength and passion.

Those of you who have skimmed my ABOUT Page may have caught the brief mention of a car accident in 2008. It was this car accident and months worth of recovery paralleled with a mentally abusive boyfriend that left me with a complex case of post traumatic stress disorder that matured as the years passed.

Much of my work as a journalist since has focused  on those who serve or have served in the military, many of whom are also inescapably reminded of the things they have experienced. As it was a  privilege to meet them professionally, it was a pleasure to get to know them personally.

My Valley News articles on three Korean war vets that were reunited 50 years! (feature Image by photographer Ryan Dorgan)

My Valley News articles on three Korean war vets that were reunited 50 years! (feature Image by photographer Ryan Dorgan)

Around this time last November, I took a trip to Hawaii. To confront the issues and anxiety that were resurfacing or to escape from them, I’m still not sure. We had a great first night on the island, meeting up with my little brother to sip mai tais out of coconuts and eat a decadent sushi dinner on a restaurant patio illuminated by tiki torches that overlooked the ocean. The next day, as we hiked up Diamond Head, I felt it all come back; the anxiety, the urgency, the alertness, the violent-heartracing-anger with myself.

Not here. I thought. How can this happen? This is supposed to be paradise!

As we hiked on, my brother and father falling behind me, I passed a group of surfers loading their boards on to the top of their car and unpacking sandwiches. I overheard the one in the wetsuit as he explained a recent surfing accident;

“I not only had to relearn how to walk but I had to relearn how to be me, to live. That is PTSD. The accident made me afraid to be even myself.”

The surfer reminded me that along with surfing accidents and other personal traumas, Hawaii is where one of the most traumatic events in the history of the United States took place; the bombings of Pearl Harbor.  I realized that nowhere, not even the most exotic, pleasant island is off the radar of for tragedy.

A couple days later, I found myself at the The Pearl Harbor Memorial built in memory of the WWII event that stands as a symbol of healing for survivors and families.

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The landscape was lush and the water was a clear, perfect aquamarine. The sun was shining brilliantly. It was beautiful.

This is paradise. I thought again.

As we walked in I tried to imagine it as a working base, the harbor filled with massive ships threaded with officers in crisp white uniforms checking and tuning and preparing and fixing. I imagined that it was probably a day that began not unlike today when the Japanese surprise attacked Pearl Harbor.

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We boarded a small boat to take us to the USS Arizona Memorial that marks the resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors that were killed during the attack. I walked in and saw their names with leis of orchids lain across stone plaques. In the center of the exhibit, a viewing window allowed you to look down and see the rusted remnants of the USS Arizona.

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While re-boarding, I noted the somber military officers who worked the memorial and how quiet the crowd stayed, each one of us learning and experiencing this alone but together. Back at the visitor’s center, I stood watching a  documentary replaying footage of the attack and interviews with survivors. One survivor, his uniform decorated in medallions of honor, sat to speak with curious tourists about what he remembered on that day.

Pearl Harbor survivor Allen Bodenlos stationed at Scholfield Barracks on December 7, 1941 turns to show me his Survivors Association jacket crest. His hat decorated with military pins.

Pearl Harbor survivor Allen Bodenlos stationed at Scholfield Barracks on December 7, 1941 turns to show me his Survivors Association jacket crest. His hat decorated with military pins.

Yet, the ships were still coasting in and out of the port. The sailors still stood tall in their pressed whites. No one here was trying to forget. There were no cheery attractions or gaudy kitsch. Nothing covered up what happened here and what still happened here. That it is still a working Naval station where the United States Pacific Fleet still endures.

Admittedly, that wasn’t the first memorial that I have visited. The memorials that surrounded me while living in Washington DC somehow became a part of the landscape, beautiful structures that I passed en route to work or admired during walks. However, after returning from my trip to Pearl Harbor I thought about them too and how maybe the key to recovery is to do just that: re-cover. Recover all that you can by picking up all the pieces, meditate on what happened and use it to restore yourself. Use it to build something beautiful and revisit it often to remind yourself of how strong you are. Use it to drive you forward, to inspire others and then look back and celebrate how far you have come. To take a lesson from our marines; “Adapt and overcome.”

In honor of those who serve and all who support them. I wish you Happy Veteran’s Day.

Photo Friday: Waterbury, Vermont

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Usually while traveling, I want to find the secret spots, go where the locals go. I don’t want to be a tourist I want to be a traveler.

Autumn in New England is a time to cast those pretensions aside. It is a time to load up on maple candies and cheese samples, take long drives and guzzle apple cider like all the guidebooks advise.

Those of us that live up here call it “Foliage Season” and we all partake when the leaves start turning those fiery reds and oranges. Droves of cars make their way north to admire the scenery, the sidewalks fill with herds of pedestrians shopping for some small town swag.

Waterbury, Vermont is always on my autumn agenda so Sarah and I set out for a good old fashioned, north country day trip.

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If you are looking for a one stop shop for all of Vermont’s finest staples, this would be the place.

What to do:

The factory tours and tastings at Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory, Cabot Creamery, and Lake Champlain Chocolates.

Where to Eat:

The Prohibition Pig for “smoked meat and libations”. Wash that brisket and burger down with restoration-style cocktails such as the Throw the Horns- Rittenhouse Rye, Sandeman Madeirda, Marischino, grapefruit.

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The Alchemist Brewery for a Heady Topper, the double IPA that was ranked No. 1 beer in the world on BeerAdvocate.com.

Where to stay:

Moose Meadow Lodge. Vermont’s only log-cabin style B&B with a tree house suite. Need I say more?

So grab your camera and hit that country road!