Our Advance Team was at the airport to greet us on Friday, June 24. Having arrived on Monday, and hired a professional tour guide, the travel trio had the lay of the land.

Before we left New Jersey, we already knew, “Folks are friendly, the city feels safe and the food is excellent!” They gave us a heads-up about the heat, about 90-99°F daily, which helped me decide what to pack. (And, I'm proud to report, I wore pretty much everything I schlepped.)

As is often the case with travel, there was a glitch. My husband and I booked an apartment in the same building as our friends. It became unavailable, because the government was replacing utilities. 

 The entrance to our friends' super-cool apartment. 

The entrance to our friends' super-cool apartment. 

Our intrepid friends found us a new place to stay, a two-minute walk from their green high-rise apartment. By their definition, the Cocoon Hotel & Lounge was a three-star option.

The windows behind the mismatched curtains were translucent. 

I opened one to find out why. There wasn’t much of a view. 

There was also a creepy handprint on the wall.

But, the place has potential. A huge deck was getting a finishing touch during our visit. 

The outdoor bar and lounge was also lovely. 

The biggest plus? Breakfast. When the day starts with coffee this good, it becomes easier to throw off the shackles of my own impatience, that Jersey Girl need for speed, and embrace the freedom of being on vacation. 

Service was slow, but the food was tasty. It was food-flavored food. Tomatoes tasting of sunshine. Feta cheese that evokes an image of happy goats bleating as they ruminate on wild herbs. (I passed on the Happy Cow.) 

That first day in Albania, after wrestling the hand-held shower to try to freshen up, and taking a brief nap on the comfortable-enough bed, it was dinner time. My love and I joined our friends for a traditional Albanian dinner at a recommended restaurant, where the power kept going out. 

So, we ate our delicious lamb, spinach pie, big beans, salad, corn bread and some sort of casserole in the dark. Me being me, I had to try the local booze, Rakia, a type of grappa with a flavor best compared to lighter fluid, but, in a good way. 

Cheers!

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AuthorVeronika Roo
CategoriesTravel

While tailgating at a West Point—where the football is delivered by soldiers jumping from a helicopter—our friends asked, “Wanna go to Albania?”

My husband and I had traveled to Slovenia with this couple and their wonderful son (now 10) in 2013. Without much pondering, we raised our plastic cups on October 10, 2015, and said, “count us in.” 

Pledge made, the next question was: “Where’s Albania?” The nation of 2.9 million is on the Adriatic Sea, bordered by Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece.

As for personal experience with the country: On Christmas Eve, 2011, we found a pink-neon bar in Manhattan whose tender hailed from Albania. He was nice.

My other data point? The 1997 black comedy, “Wag the Dog,” during which Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman fabricate a war in Albania to distract the media because, two weeks prior to reelection, the United States president was in the middle of a sex scandal.

And I quote: Why Albania? / Why not? / What have they done to us? / What have they done FOR us? What do you know about them? / Nothing. / See? They keep to themselves. Shifty. Untrustable.

Self-education began with our stomachs. On December 19, 2015, my husband made six allegedly Albanian dishes for which we found recipes online. I even helped, a little. The five of us were delighted to see feta cheese was a main ingredient in pretty much everything. That said, once in-country, the nearest thing we found to offerings at our dinner party was spinach pie. 

Planning continued as it began, with a side dish of football on February 7, 2016, during our annual Puppy Bowl party. Our girlfriend checked out the only book she could find about our destination. 

We learned Albanians are “the most economically backward of the Balkan peoples... The land itself offers little promise of a prosperous future.” Granted, The Balkans, The Modern Nations in Historical Perspective was published in 1965, but I did have a moment of wondering what we were getting ourselves into.

Undeterred, that night we booked places to stay. For my husband and me, the adventure began with a flight from Newark Airport on June 23, 2016. 

 

 

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AuthorVeronika Roo
CategoriesTravel

Eleventh in a series. The light in the foyer was a transplant from our starter home, a condo in Bloomfield down the street from the ice cream parlor where the final scene of The Sopranos took place. We lived under Nurse Leadfoot, who’d come home in the wee hours and begin clog dancing. She lacked rhythm. 

The Blue Light Special in our entry back in 2006, before the lake shack’s first renovation.

The three blue pendants left me dissatisfied. For years. The fixture nonetheless survived the first renovation. The thing sure a heck was not going to live through the latest one. Not if I had anything to do with it. And I do, because I live here.

The entry in 2010, well after the first renovation.

I look and click, my attention grabbed again and again by the unaffordable. Casa de Roo deserved lighting with the soul-caressing beauty of the Viennese crystal design that glowed within the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center since the year of my birth, 1966. Refurbished in 2008, patrons can still buy the few remaining pieces of the original. I asked when I was in the gift shop during intermission in March. The smallest remnant is $4,000—even more that the fully functioning fixtures I consider far out of my price range.

Admiring the ultimate in chandeliers in Manhattan on March 5, 2015.

My husband tosses me into the Mini and heads to Manhattan. The day begins, as it should, with good beer. The first place I want to check out for its Moroccan-style punched tin pendants is a bust. Time for more beer. And a snack. This becomes our pattern for the day. Look at lighting. Have a drink, eat a snack. Explore some more. Wouldn’t want to feel peckish or prudent while on such an important mission.

Finding beer and lighting on June 28, 2014. The ET2 Contemporary Lighting Polygon fixture isn’t installed until January 30, 2015, in time for our Super Bowl party.

At last, we find it at Lighting by Gregory on Bowery in the lighting district. The design reminds us of our trip to Belgium in 2010 when, despite epic food poisoning, my love took me to see the Atomium.

December 29, 2010, we slid through the ice and snow to look at the Atomium, designed by engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

My man schleps the light fixture through the streets to our car, an effort deserving of another snack-n-sip stop. We bring it home, where it sits for seven months as the kitchen project expands to include a bathroom redo and hardwood flooring installation.

I insist on centering the fixture in the space, and the Dave the electrician sets it up. A bare lightbulb is in place for the electrical inspection, giving the foyer a downmarket apartment quality, and not in an “aren’t they charmingly thrifty” sort of way. 

Dave hangs the fixture. Fabulous. Like most of this renovation project, however, one more thing needs to happen before we can enjoy our investment. Being an LED, the chandelier needs a specialized dimmer. Which means it is in place, but kept dark.

Dave returns to complete a list of electrical projects and installs the specialized dimmer. My husband and I play with the settings until finding the right balance between bright and dim. As an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine concludes, a distinctive voice declares “Fremulon.” The man of the house decides this is the perfect name for our fixture. I agree as I bask in its long-awaited pure white bubbly glow. 

I was delighted to see Fremulon through the window as I stood in the backyard on Friday night.

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AuthorVeronika Roo
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Tenth in a series. I had a vision. Of barn wood. Of driftwood. Of a warm gray surface that stretches across the kitchen, through the great room, out the sliding glass doors and all the way to the edge of the deck.

The floors that came with our house were an eyesore. Green vinyl in the kitchen. Cheap industrial carpet covered the rest of the living area, bedrooms and closets. The ugly plastic fibers held dirt and snagged skin.

 The main living area in 2008, before the first renovation, back when we had 20 skylights leaking overhead.

The main living area in 2008, before the first renovation, back when we had 20 skylights leaking overhead.

The “green” carpet we chose during the first renovation felt soft underfoot. Briefly. Our typical travels through the house were revealed as wear marks. Stains reminded us of every clumsy moment. It is not an environmentally friendly product if you need to throw it out sooner than expected.

 Our home in July 2009.

Our home in July 2009.

In the kitchen, we installed cork. Ourselves. Badly. The click-together boards touted as DIY were not easy for us moderately competent do it yourselfers to wrestle into place. Seams came apart in places most likely to pinch our feet.

 Hidden graffiti penned by my husband before we install the cork flooring in February 2009 is rediscovered when the ill-fated flooring is ripped out in June 2014.

Hidden graffiti penned by my husband before we install the cork flooring in February 2009 is rediscovered when the ill-fated flooring is ripped out in June 2014.

Ridding ourselves of the terrible flooring in the great room and kitchen is part of the original plan for the kitchen renovation. We select white oak and upgrade to planks a width that best approximates our decking. The carpet is removed in June and the house feels better. Cleaner. Even with nothing underfoot but rough sheathing.

Skinny Bob installs the planks on a day I work from home. I notice a mermaid tattoo on his arm—a sign I am on the right track with a concept I’m tinkering with in my manuscript for People in Charge: A Novel.

 The wood planks are a tad wider than the decking (left). The sheathing is covered in vapor barrier paper before the boards are installed.

The wood planks are a tad wider than the decking (left). The sheathing is covered in vapor barrier paper before the boards are installed.

I am surprised by how nice the bare wood feels under bare feet. Warm and comforting. There’s a realness to it that gives me the sense of being grounded. My little lake shack takes on the gravitas of a movie star mansion in Malibu. I breathe in the luxury of real wood and my lungs feel clean.

Time passes and we do nothing to protect the wood. We drag furniture across it, spill, drop crumbs. The wood shrugs. “That’s all ya got?”

We trip over the threshold between wood and where the carpet is to begin again to mark the private wing of the house. Okay, wing is a little grandiose. (Willow, my main character, lives in a mansion with a family wing.) It’s the corner where the bathroom, closet and two bedroom doors meet. 

 The project in July 2014 and on March 4.

The project in July 2014 and on March 4.

It occurs to us that we have to make a now or never decision. My beloved is beleaguered by the relentlessness of the renovation’s disruption to our home life, yet he agrees. We decide to do away with the remaining carpet, write another check to our contractor, Frank K, and ask Skinny Bob run hardwood through the hallway and into the closet and two bedrooms.

The scope of the project has expanded. Again.

Packing up and moving downstairs is a drag, but the husband and I convince ourselves it will be worth it in the end, and convince ourselves the end is not so far into the future.

 Looking a tad forlorn, my husband enjoys the last piece of furniture remaining in the great room prior to the sanding, staining and sealing of the floors.

Looking a tad forlorn, my husband enjoys the last piece of furniture remaining in the great room prior to the sanding, staining and sealing of the floors.

Giving tours of our lake shack had always included a game I called “walk uphill.” A previous owner enlarged the master bedroom with a bump-out. It was badly supported, an issue addressed by an engineer hired during the previous renovation.

Guests would follow my direction to walk toward the far wall and, yes, the room sloped upward. So much so that part of making the bed included pushing the mattress back into place against the headboard.

It was just another quirk of our quirky home. 

The reason was revealed by the carpet removal. Leveling compound. Layers of it, applied for no understandable reason, made the bedroom un-level. It was bizarre. And an added expense to remedy. I don’t envy Skinny Bob carrying chunks of concrete by the bucketful through the ice and snow and up to the street where his truck was located.

Now the room is level-ish. Much better. 

 After hacking out chunks of un-leveling compound, Skinny Bob had to re-sheath the floor. Once it was time for Rolando to begin the task of installing trim, we could see just how much higher that side of the bedroom had been than the rest of the upstairs.

After hacking out chunks of un-leveling compound, Skinny Bob had to re-sheath the floor. Once it was time for Rolando to begin the task of installing trim, we could see just how much higher that side of the bedroom had been than the rest of the upstairs.

The moment arrives: picking the color. Skinny Bob left us a stained square in the bedroom and another by the double set of sliding glass doors. Are these same shade made different by the light? Is this one perfect or too dark? What we also lack is the ability to compare the floor with the deck, given that it is hidden beneath several inches of snow and ice

Skinny Bob meets us about half an hour later, on a cold weekday night, drops to his knees and slathers on another patch of stain, wiping it off vigorously. Perfect. The shade is perfect. Gray, while still respecting the wood. Not hiding the grain. Enhancing it. 

 The stain on the left if what we select. It looks different depending on the light and will look different still once the topcoat is applied, yet another time we need to use our imagination and trust our instincts when making a design decision.

The stain on the left if what we select. It looks different depending on the light and will look different still once the topcoat is applied, yet another time we need to use our imagination and trust our instincts when making a design decision.

We seek refuge in New York City for my forty-ninth birthday as Skinny Bob completes staining and sealing the floors. On Sunday night, the cold rolls down the stairs and falls from the landing onto our bed and brings with it the last whiff of VOCs from the fairly benign topcoat.

“Is this giving me a headache?” I ask myself. “No,” I say, but toss and turn anyway.

At last the floors have cured long enough to allow us to move back upstairs. I get my first good night’s sleep in memory, after an evening spent hanging out on the couch. The gleaming floors are smooth and warm underfoot. 

I had a vision. The end result is better. 

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AuthorVeronika Roo