Happy another year in the early 2020s! I think it’s becoming increasingly clear as the COVID pandemic turns endemic that we’ll all look back on this time as one four or five year chunk rather than as individual, distinct years.
I am typing this post poolside, under a breadfruit tree, 50 yards from the Indian Ocean on the island of Zanzibar. Adam and I are finishing up what we call an “R&R,” or rest and relaxation trip, which just means it’s a plane ticket that our employer, the U.S. Department of State, pays for. The trip included an 8-day safari, which was incredible, and I’ll blog about both the safari and our island time in Zanzibar soon. But as I contemplate if it’s too early to sip my first piña colada of the day, it occurs to me that normally, come January, I’m taking stock of the year at home, feeling a little out of sorts or horribly jet-lagged like last year. But right, now, I’m feeling pretty okay about the previous year and definitely really excited about the upcoming one, which will have us moving back to America.
The year started off shit, if you recall. Adam and I had only just returned from a one-month trip to the U.S. when my gynocologist called me in Algeria and said I had cervical cancer. This necessitated two additional trips to the U.S. for the same surgery to remove a piece of my cervix. What’s weird about that whole experience is that I don’t think about it ever. After being given a clean bill of health in March, it’s like I just deleted the whole thing from my memory. The surgeries were unremarkable except for maybe the first one because it was exactly as Joe Biden was being inaugurated as President so I basically went to sleep with Trump as president and woke up with a Biden one. Now weeks go by and I’ll think with a start “Wait, did I fly home twice and have surgery? Did a doctor really tell me I had cancer? That’s nuts.”
In 2021, The Next Dinner Party had more than 24,000 viewers, which was a 40 percent increase over the previous year. The majority of readers are from the United States, but I also have a good number of readers in the United Kingdom, Algeria, Australia, Spain, Morocco, and Canada. The most read posts of 2021 included the 2020 posts The Handsome Dark Green Study and How to Host a Cocktail Contest Party. The most popular blog post that I wrote in 2021 was Three Gadgets We Don’t Have in America (That I Wouldn’t Want to Live Without). 2021 marked my ninth year writing this blog, and although I never seem to be able to post as often as I like, it still brings me a lot of joy to share my experiences of this global life.
I’m in an Embassy book club, and we’ve read a few good things for that, the best of which was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which provided insight into the Russian revolution in a way that was both narrow in scope – basically through one aristocrat’s decades of life at Moscow’s fanciest hotel – and broad at the same time. That book inspired another read, or re-read of The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, which became one of my favorites after I first read it as part of my graduate MFA program. It’s based on the true story of a Russian Jew who is falsely accused of killing a boy in Tsarist Russia. That led to reading Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, a meeting that was hosted by our colleagues who met decades ago on a research vessel in the Baltic Sea. One of them is Russian, and if you can someone to “teach” you a book that is set in their country, it’s a much richer experience. One of the most fun things about reading is that when you come upon a theme that interests you, well, there’s pretty much endless things to read on that theme. Last month I read one of my favorite articles from the entire year: A New Yorker piece called “A Black Communist’s Disappearance in Stalin’s Russia” about Lovett Fort-Whiteman, who fled the Jim Crow south for Communist Moscow in part because he saw racism as a Capitalistic invention. But Russia did not turn out to be the anti-racist haven he had envisioned and it ended devastatingly badly for him.
I went on a similar trajectory with China, reading Ha Jin’s Waiting as a way to learn about the Cultural Revolution in China and of course we met for that book club one of my favorite Algiers’ restaurants called Bejing, which is basically in someone’s house and no one who works there speaks a lick of English (or French, or Arabic). Ordering is hard, but the food is very good and can be quite spicy, which is a nice antidote to the rarely spicy Algerian cuisine.
Totally unrelated, Kate Baer’s poems in What Kind of Woman are stunningly clever, especially when she takes hate mail, erases some words to transform it into biting and profound retorts. Really enjoyed reading her book before bed, but I’d sometimes yell out “Oh, burn!” and wake up Adam.
I also really loved The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, which is the best sliding doors type parallel story I’ve ever read and the book’s message about “there are no really good or bad choices, only choices” resonated with me as I often think we justify choices years down the road as “the right choice” when it reality, there may be no “right choices,” only choices. Similarly, a gem of a novel by my friend and former NYU classmate, W.S. Winslow called The Northern Reach, explores the choices that generations of interconnected residents of a rural Maine town have made, and it also contains some sensuous French cooking scenes that I really loved. Speaking of cooking, another friend and NYU classmate, Mary Grace, from the My Life 100 Years Ago blog sent me a few books when I was convalescing after surgery, one of which was the 1988 memoir Home Cooking by Lori Colwin. I loved the Nora Ephron-ish wit and writing and Colwin’s sly observations on the joys and pitfalls of cooking at home and entertaining. Though the 1980s food descriptions did not leave me salivating. A whole chapter about sautéing red peppers with onions. Or about how salad couldn’t be easier because it’s greens and some oil. (As a salad evangelist, I can tell you that salads can be so much more). This quote from Home Cooking especially resonated with me: “It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.” Adam probably adheres to this retaliatory form of dinner parties more than I do. I tend to favor just inviting the people I really like, even it the guests list ends up being mostly the same each time.
I know it’s a little controversial to admit that 2021 was the year we returned to a pretty normal social life. When you live in a place that doesn’t take the virus too seriously – even when you’re reading and listening to U.S. news all day long – it can make you mostly act how the people around you do. That being said, almost all of the people we socialize with are vaccinated. That’s to preface telling you that we hosted two massive (mostly outdoors) house parties this year (vaccination was mandatory). One was our July 4th party, for which we requested all guests dress as “an American” which is always fun to see what that means for non-Americans. (For the contest winners, it means dressing as Star Wars characters). A live band, a hard-to-come-by keg of local Tango beer, and lots of snacks made for a super lively summer party. Come December, we restarted our annual tradition of the Holiday Spirit Cocktail Contest Party, which was an 80-plus person fete with a wonderful live band, a little Christmas singalong and a lots of cozy appetizers. So those two parties take the cake for us, but there were also so many fun parties with diplo friends, including a potluck party on the beach in Tipaza; a cozy game night in the seaview apartment of our Colombian friends; a dance party to our favorite Algerian band, Imerhan, at a beautiful hotel in Bou Saada; a dinner party on the rooftop of the Algiers’ Casbah during Ramadan; a1970s themed party at our French friend’s house; a birthday party at our Tunisian/German friends with so many nice and interesting people from all over the world; a wedding shower with U.S. embassy ladies; a caftan and cocktails party on my patio; wine tasting parties; a white party in a backyard; a black party on the new party island in Algiers for which we had to take a rickety boat through a stinky sardine-filled marina; the U.S. Marine Corps birthday ball in the lobby of the Embassy; and several raclette parties which is entire party centered on eating cheese that has been perfectly melted on a special heating contraption that every Swiss person is required by law to own.
A book I wouldn’t even say I read so much as feasted on, again and again, is my design idol Justina Blakeney’s Jungalow: Decorate Wild. Blakeney’s eye for mixing patterns to create happy and lush spaces is such an inspiration for me (I used her wallpaper to design our jungly bar nook). Aside from having inspiring photos from Blakeney’s visits to India, Morocco, and West Africa, the book is wonderfully written, especially in how she talks about melding styles, both from her Jewish/Black upbringing and from her travels. My life is increasingly become about considering the design of my surroundings and thinking how I can incorporate the same ideas into something for an interior. North Africa has been an endless source of inspo for me. Anyways I keep this book in the boho lounge spot and flip through it constantly, often with a cocktail. Speaking of the boho lounge area, I’m happy about the custom L-shaped low sofa I had made by an Algerian designer, which really helped make that space comfy and cool. Other design highlights of the year: Finding a carved day bed frame in a trash pile, lugging it home, and then having a friend in Michigan make a cushion cover for it with some outdoor fabric I picked out. Although my plan to add some deep green Algerian handpainted tiles to the front of it hasn’t worked out yet, it’s still been a very welcome addition to our patio. Same for the peacock chair, or Chaise d’Emmanuel for French speakers, that Adam got me for my 37th birthday in May. He found a fab wicker store and I’ve visited this heaven-on-Earth spot a few times since, buying two chairs and a console table. 2021 was also the year in which I started taking on design clients, with the goal of eventually turning interior design consulting into my full-time gig. It has been very exciting and challenging to take something I long did for free – told my friends how to set up their homes – and figure out how to make it a business. I’ve had clients based in Uzbekistan, Honduras, Mexico City, Singapore, and Algiers, each with different aesthetic goals and styles. I am really excited to officially launch Next Dinner Party Designs and take on more clients in 2022. Also exciting: the Embassy asked me to project manage a redesign of our Embassy recreation center/bar. I am so stoked about designing a space, especially a bar space, that will be enjoyed by U.S. Embassy Algiers employees and their families for years to come.
Last year began with several trips to the U.S., but as both trips were for a bummer of a medical reason and it was really in the midst of a wave of COVID, I can’t say either trip was a best of anything. Still, I’m grateful that I got to see family, including my fast-growing nieces and nephew, and my best friend Lauren in Denver.
Other than those trips to the U.S., a dreamy weeklong jaunt to Sifnos, Greece, and a few-day layover in my fave, Paris, most of the travel I did in 2021 was domestic. It was the year I finally saw a lot of Algeria, including several trips to the nearby beachy town of Tipaza, as well as visits to Bou Saada, Bejaia, Bechar, Ouargla, Oran, Tibhirine, Constantine, Batna, and Timgad. But the domestic trip that really wowed me was a November visit to the Sahara Desert area of Djanet. Blog post forthcoming on this gem, but the three nights we spent camping, driving, listening to music under the stars, and yes, even swimming in the middle of the Sahara Desert, were magic and it takes the crown as my favorite trip of 2021.
Well, I could go on much longer with the Best Ofs, but a yoga class, followed by a tropical drink and then dinner beckons here at this island paradise. Back to real life soon. Until then, Happy New Year!