At Home in the Empire State
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from May of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. This is my final post wrapping up my time in New York up to November of 2016, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.
The longer I travel and live abroad, the more I realize that I’m a bit of an anomaly — I’ve chosen not to live there, but I love the place that made me.
It can actually be a bit tricky at times. If I hated my hometown and just went back begrudgingly every few years, like so many expats and long-term travelers I encounter do, I’d definitely feel like my heart wasn’t always in two places. But alas, it is, and so every year I do my best to sneak in as much time in New York as I possibly can manage.
Some years I’m more successful than others. But between the very ends of May and November 2016, for six busy months, I based myself largely out of the US. Sure, I was going to festivals, taking work trips to Florida and Manitoba and Jamaica, going on adventures to Canada, Hawaii and the United Kingdom, visiting family and friends in Massachusetts, California and Illinois, and throwing myself into election mania. But between all the madness, I’d return to New York to catch my breath, reconnect, and slip back into a shadow of my old life for a bit.
Even when I’m in New York, my heart is halved again still — a portion in Albany, where I was born and raised till I was seventeen and where my mom still lives part-time, and New York City, where I dreamed of living my entire adolescence, where I went to college, and where one of the largest concentrations of my friends can still be found. Over those six US-based months of 2016, I spent forty-two nights in Albany, spread out over nine trips, and I spent twenty-four nights in New York, spread out over six trips. Yeah, I was kind of all over the place that year.
Even though for me, this is technically travel — I don’t have a residence in New York State (though I do pay my taxes there, ugh) — I rarely blog about my downtime at home. I guess I figure it’s just not all that interesting! Travelers rarely make it to Albany (though I always say I’m going to write an updated guide to a weekend here for those that do), and when it comes to New York, I guess when I’m there, I just click back into my pre-blogging life. I rarely even have my camera with me. Which is a polite way of saying, forgive the crappy iPhone photos in this post. Whoops.
Still, this precious time in my home state — which was relatively pretty abundant in 2016! — is a big part of me and it’s a part of my story, so surely it deserves at least one post before this blog heads back to Thailand.
So, of those roughly two cumulative months I spent in New York State, here were my highlights…
Hosting Friends in my Hometown
Like I said before, Albany isn’t exactly winning any tourism awards, despite the amount of time Olivia and I dedicate to coming up with slogans for its non-existant tourism board. (Albany: Has Infrastructure and Albany: Honestly Not As Bad As You Think Once You Get There are two of our long-standing faves.) Still, it’s full of hidden gems, and so I’m always thrilled when I get the opportunity to show a friend or two around.
This summer I was spoiled with ’em — first, I had repeat visitor Ian, who is always such a good sport about kicking around my hometown, then I got to show Kristin and Angie a few highlights on our way back from Martha’s Vineyard. (Kristin even wrote a blog post about her visit and took some of the beautiful photos below — though unfortunately the Albany TSA didn’t exactly get the memo that she was needed back in Tennessee.) And while it was only for one night, I was tickled to have my friend Dallas stop for a night on her way back to the city after we carpooled back from Liberty festival together.
One of the best things about having out-of-town friends to show off to? It gets me off by butt to check out new places. I always love seeing what Albany’s been up to since my last visit, with some of my favorites from this trip being Troy Kitchen, one of those upscale food courts that are so trendy right now, Ama Cocina, a hip Mexican joint in Downtown Albany just moments from my childhood home, and Cider Belly Doughnuts, Albany’s first cute little donut place — and hopefully not its last.
Weird and Wonderful Workouts
All those doughnuts aren’t going to burn off themselves! I LOVE being home and getting to try out all kinds of wacky workout trends that are rarely available to me when I’m in Thailand or on the road. In Albany, my workout routine has been pretty set for years — when I’m home, I religiously attend a nearly barre studio’s various classes. But this summer, I shook things up, going for refreshing runs around the Empire State Plaza (one of my favorite places in Albany) and discovering Good Karma, a funky studio offering aerial yoga, trampoline fitness and a whole host of other unique classes. Try it out, Capital Region readers!
In New York, I sometimes stayed with friends in Manhattan for a change, which gave me the chance to do something I absolutely reveled in — walking and running in Central Park. Also, this was quite notably my summer of getting hopelessly hooked on ClassPass. ClassPass lets you pay upfront for a virtual punch card of classes that works at studios all over the city for a fraction of what a drop-in typically costs (use my link to get $30 off, if you’re keen to try it out.)
I’m especially grateful to ClassPass for introducing me to two yoga forms that I’m now beyond obsessed with. One is Y7 Studio, a hot hip hop yoga studio in New York and now Los Angeles, which I’ve gotten so hooked on in the last two years, I’m actually going to do my yoga teacher training with them this June! I also fell head over barefeet for Buti Yoga, which is a tribal-dance inspired, very empowering and energetic yoga practice that is still a rare treat when I can find it. I’m pretty keen to do one of their trainings in the future too!
Of course I tried a million other classes (including but not limited to a luxury aquacycling studio… #onlyinnewyork) and loved some, liked others and found a few that weren’t for me. My name is Alexandra Baackes, and I’m a group exercise addict. I even started a dedicated Instagram account for my fitness addiction over this period, which I later fizzled out on… but maybe this summer will inspire me to get back to it.
Reconnecting with my Albany Crew
It can be a little weird going home sometimes — so many of my childhood friends have moved away now, and even my own mom now splits her time between Martha’s Vineyard and Albany! But two of my closest friends from growing up still call the Capital Region home, and I absolutely love connecting with them when I’m around.
And they aren’t the only ones… from our neighbors to my best friend’s parents (who I call my second parents) to the billion family friends that feel like family, I certainly never get lonely when I’m home. I’m so grateful to still have these strong roots planted down in the place that raised me.
Happen to be heading to Albany anytime soon? Don’t miss two of my favorite 2016 discoveries — Ciders and Sliders at Nine Pin Cider Works in Albany, where you can do a cider tasting and eat delicious food truck sliders, or Vinyl Night at Superior Merchandise Co., which has a raffle, cool drinks, a rad patio and some of the cutest local swag I’ve ever seen.
I Slept in the City That Never Sleeps
Oh look, I made a little joke! Honestly, this post kind of makes it seem like I’m out and about all the time and while it does seem like I have a friend date of some sort every day, I also spend a very solid amount of hours on the couch zoned out doing busy work and binge “watching” TV series… and I love that. Sometimes (mmmmkay, pretty often) my friend dates also consist of doing that, in tandem. Albany is definitely my special place for this and there’s nothing I love more than cuddling up with my mama and discovering we both have a Law and Order: SVU episode we haven’t watched yet. Score! But I admit, my New York life is pretty tame these days too.
It’s funny because I’m a girl who loves to go out and have a good time and New York is a city that’s famous for nightlife, but I guess my community there has kind of reached a different phase, which is pretty on track with like, what most grown-ups do with their lives (and why Banyan was such a special refuge for me as the years went on.)
Sometimes I feel a pang of nostalgia for the messy years when I pass a giggling group heading out for a big night, but mostly I try to accept that you can’t force these kinds of things, and embrace my current reality. Plus, as much as I love a night out, I also love a night in. As Ian and I like to say, “Work hard, play hard, chill hardest.”
On the plus side, all those early mornings left plenty of time for exploring new parts of the city. Over this year I started occasionally staying with my friends Kristin and Steve at their new apartments in Midtown, which for me is still pretty uncharted territory in New York. (In my Brooklyn years, we used to joke the city only started below 34th street!) While I had to admit that I still don’t love Midtown, it does have its perks — mainly access to Central Park, proximity to a ton of cool workout studios and those addictive make-your-own-salad spots, and of course, the fact that some of my favorite people live there and are generous enough to let me sleep on their couches or in their spare rooms! Yeah, you read that right. Spare rooms. We fancy now. (Okay, technically they fancy now. When I’m in New York I’m as good as homeless.)
One part of the city I really explored more and fell crazy in love with? Yup, Williamsburg. Back in the day we used to mostly stick to more budget friendly Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, and other more deeply buried corners of Brooklyn, but due to the aforementioned fanciness, the treasures of Williamsburg are no longer off-limits! An indie movie theater where cheeky craft cocktails and special menus are designed as a wink to each film they screen? Two tickets please. Painfully trendy cafés where acai bowls are practically spilling into the streets? Yes please. Boutique hair studios and organic nail salons where a haircut, manicure and pedicure costs a sizeable fraction of my rent in Thailand? Treat yourself! It’s enough to make a girl think about moving back to the greatest city on Earth.
And then she remembers winter.
I Went to Queens
Mkay but like literally, I never go to Queens so this is actually exciting. I can think of exactly two other times in my life I made trips into this fair borough. (What can I say? Brooklyn and Manhattan are big enough as it is!) But when my friend Luke, who hosted me so generously in Guatemala, invited me to a fundraiser for an orphanage he used to run outside Antigua at Terraza 7, I couldn’t say no.
I had a blast, and walking around en route to the bar I couldn’t help but feel the buzz that has many describing Queens as the next New York hotspot. After the fundraiser, my new friends and I ended up at a twenty-four hour diner where I stayed out far beyond my phone’s battery life, and then realized I had no Uber, no cash, and no yellow cabs in sight to get back to Manhattan with. And it was pouring rain, rendering the idea of walking to the subway unattractive.
Eventually I managed to hail a black cab (for non New Yorkers, those are the outer-borough cabs that don’t take credit cards — at least they were the outer borough cabs until those weird green cabs took over, but let’s not even go there) and explained my predicament to the driver. He contemplated for a moment before suggesting that he needed gas — perhaps I could use my credit card to fill his tank up to the fare equivalent, and then he’d bring me home. Three AM in a rainy and unfamiliar borough, getting into a stranger’s car with no communication method and no cash and driving to a random gas station in order to get back to the friend’s apartment I was crashing in? These are the kind of random New York adventures I miss.
PS: I was not axe murdered by said taxi driver.
PPS: In fact, he was a really nice guy.
If you’ve been reading a while, you know I do everything I can to make it to the big moments in my friends and families lives — which these days, is a whole lotta weddings. I was thrilled to be there to celebrate my ex-roommate and current favorite person contender Scott’s marriage to his boyfriend Andy, even if it did mean they were moving away to London and I was going to see him a lot less.
Scott and Andy did a courthouse wedding, so this was all about the party. And I absolutely loved how they did it — it was like a Pratt reunion! They sent chic e-vites, rented a loft in Red Hook and designed the event from scratch, and our friend Steve did the photography, our friend Sam was the DJ, and our friend Adam and his family did the catering.
It was casual, fun, and fabulous.
Meanwhile, over in Manhattan, we kicked of the first event of many for what may just rival a royal wedding. When Ashlee, one of my sister and I’s closest friends got engaged to her truly fantastic fiance J, I rubbed my hands together and cackled at all the opportunities to craft that were certainly now in my future.
We got our first crack at super extra overdoing it for their engagement party, which happened to be just the perfect sisterly post-election distraction project we needed. It brought us out of out of our grief cave in Albany and back down to the city, and I think we needed that.
Olivia and I had so much fun crafting custom signs, hostage negotiating with Party City employees to get our unauthorized balloons inflated, making a custom Snapchat filter, setting up a little photo booth and making a bucket-list album for the bride-and-groom to be! It was great to get to meet some of the other wedding guests and toast to a couple that means so much to us and really, already feels like family. These two deserve the world and with Olivia as Maid of Honor, there is no doubt that it will be delivered on time — and with flair.
Ash and J have had a super long engagement, which means that actually, we still have plenty of fun events ahead. This summer and fall I’m looking forward to their wedding shower, Ash’s bachelorette bonanza, and of course, the wedding itself.
Ringing in Another Year
You guys know that I loooove my birthday. I’d say, “who doesn’t?” but apparently, some people don’t celebrate with the fervor of seven-year-olds planning pretty pretty princess bashes. Weird.
Anyway, twenty-seven was quite possibly the most low-key birthday I’ve ever had. I was in hardcore election countdown mode for the week prior, and Scott’s wedding was the night before, so I knew a large heaping of my friend group would be nursing hangovers, and I was super distracted by the election anyway, so my birthday felt like just a blip, and for once that didn’t bother me in the slightest.
But it was perfect nonetheless. Three of my Brooklyn friends brought me flowers and took me out to brunch, and then I treated myself to a cab all the way to Midtown — with a stop at my all time favorite bakery, Sugar Sweet Sunshine — where I spent a low key night watching movies with my girl Kristin, who had also treated me to cake and a bottle of wine. It was the absolute best and a reminder of how easy it is to be grateful and happy when you have no expectations about how a day will unfold.
Suddenly, it felt like the countdown clock was running out on my time in the US. Once I’d decided — well, it was a no-brainer — to stay stateside until the election on November 8th, it seemed silly not to stick around for Thanksgiving on November 24th (which also allowed Olivia and I to sneak in a little Jamaica getaway in-between).
It was a pretty somber year in a lot of ways, for obvious reasons, but I think we all needed the familiarity of what has always been my family’s favorite holiday. It was a sad year with high emotions and a lot of tears, but I’m glad we were together — Ian even came down after a month working for his family in Canada as a pit stop on our way back to Thailand.
I pounced on my last chance to give Martha Stewart a run for her money and went crazy making a banana nutmeg cream pie, apple cinnamon cupcakes, and an inspired fruit platter, while Ian crafted custom Thanksgiving mulled cocktails for everyone. We did puzzles and watched the parade and my mom went perfectly over the top with the decorating, as usual, and I got to reconnect with some high school friends for what is always the biggest annual night out in Albany — Thanksgiving Eve. It was lovely.
That said, I found it really hard to do Thanksgiving and not Christmas. As much as I love my Christmases in Thailand, it’s been years since I had one at home and it does tug at my heartstrings, and so seeing everyone gear up for the holiday season was way tougher than I expected it to be — I won’t be doing one without the other again! From here forward, Thanksgiving and Christmas are a package deal (I’m SO excited to be spending my first Christmas at home in four years in 2018!)
Home is Important
While they might not be the most exotic or exciting or bloggable, these memories are important. My godmother Mary Jane, who was like a third grandmother to me growing up, passed away soon after I returned to Thailand. We’d known she was sick for months, and I’m so grateful that I got to spend these final months with her, and know that she was still so popular she was filling up guest sign-in sheets are her assisted living facility faster than they could print them, and so sassy she was still cracking us up with her wit — and fondness for curse words — right to the end. It definitely helped ease the pain of not being there for her memorial, knowing that we had had that time together.
All this time back in New York, with all its super high highs and its devastating lows, reminded me how important it is to continue to put in as much time as I can there, even if I sometimes feel frustrated by how it holds me back from feeling more settled in Thailand or from exploring other new parts of the world. I don’t ever want to go back to New York or Albany and feel like a total stranger.
And with that, I was back to Thailand for the winter! Next stop… Southeast Asia.
This has me dying for a trip back to New York. I keep meaning to do Upstate as well and may have to tack Albany onto my to-do list. It’s funny, I used to hate my hometown but after moving away for six years I wound up missing it enough to move back. Also, that fruit salad turkey is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!
Thanks Kacy 🙂 I don’t think I’ll ever live in Albany again but I loved growing up there and love visiting. It’s fun showing people around — I’m really going to try to do a weekend guide this summer!
I love this Alex, such a lovely way to showcase your hometown! I can really relate to the part of this post about your heart being in multiple places at once. I love living abroad and although I don’t think I’ll ever move back to my hometown I absolutely love to visit, and never want to feel like a stranger there!
Also, since you’re doing your yoga training does this mean you’ll be teaching a few of the yoga classes in your retreat this summer?!
It might! I’ll be assisting on all of them and maybe even teaching one or two! Very excited <3
I love the Big Apple!
Beautiful photos of New York! It’s always a great way to reexperience a city when you’re guiding friends around!
It’s the best way to be a tourist in your own city, for sure 🙂
I’ve always wanted to go to New York! Looks beautiful!
Hope you make it there someday! It’s one for the bucket list, for sure!