The first time I stepped off a plane in a foreign country, I was 16 years old. I had just signed up for a year abroad. Thankfully, I was not alone on this trip. I was traveling as a Rotary Exchange Student, which meant I had the full support of a host family, a Rotary club, and plenty of other exchange students from around the world. Most importantly, I had my fairy god sister, Rachel.
Rachel and I had known each other our whole lives, and no one could convince me that she wasn’t my real sister. In fact, I always joked that I was secretly adopted from her parents, and that’s why I was lucky to have two families.
|Me, Rachel, and my biological sister, Amy, the day before Rachel and I left for Denmark. July 12, 1993.
That year in Denmark, the world changed me. I grew from 16 years old to 30 in the span of 12 months. And while Rachel and I weren’t living in the same town, we saved our pennies and traveled to see each other at least every other month. In between visits, we wrote each other letters daily. She was my home, and I was hers.
If living in another country changed me, so did my fairy god sister. When we first arrived and couldn’t speak the language she gave me a tip: just laugh. Laugh at everything. I tried it. And it worked. Soon enough, I was engaged in conversations without knowing a word of Danish. It’s a trait that has stuck with me to this day—I laugh a lot and laugh often. In fact, people tell me they can locate me in a room just by following my laughter.
Rachel also helped me commit to becoming vegetarian. We had each gained about 30 hefty pounds dining on ham fat, pork, and a variety of rich, creamy dairy desserts. We were kids—we wanted to eat everything! One day, she suggested we tell our host families that we were Methodists (a religion they knew little about), and tell them we weren’t allowed to eat meat during lent. We just wanted vegetables instead of pork, but didn’t know how else to ask! It worked, and 18 years later, I still don’t eat meat.
If Rachel and I believed we were sisters before traveling to Denmark together, we were bonded on a much more intimate level after our experience abroad. We shared a secret language, a year of experiences that only we knew about, joys like inside jokes, pains nobody could understand, and moments that no one back home would ever share. Like having a magical fort you have built in the woods behind your house, our shared experience was ours alone. We understood each other in a way that no one else could—or ever really has.
That was 18 years ago. Rachel and I shared many sisterly moments after that year—weddings, holidays, college adventures, and the usual girl talk over a cup of coffee. You have to understand the importance of that particular year and my connection to Rachel to understand the gravity of all that has taken place in the past year and all that food blog camp came to mean in its wake.
|Rachel and me goofing off at my wedding in 2003.
Fast forward to May 8, 2010. It was a warm and wonderful Saturday, and I was participating in one of my favorite activities: planting the summer garden! Wearing shorts and a tank top for the first time in months, I dug my hands into the supple earth and watched with glee as worms twisted through the dark dirt and ants scuttled out of the way. I pulled plant after plant from its safe, tiny pot and patted it firmly in place inside my garden beds. Nine kinds of heirloom tomatoes, two rows of sweet and hot peppers, 3 beds filled with melons of every kind: muskmelon, watermelon, honeydew.
|The bounty (picked in summer) from that spring planting.
The sun wrapped its warmth around me. The clean spring air cleansed my mind. The firm earth beneath my feet left me grounded, content with my place in this world. The happy rows of plants stood like tiny hands waving. Joy.
The next morning, May 9, was nothing like the day before. I rose early to find the sky darkly clouded. Rain was imminent. I decided to leave early for the farmers’ market in hopes of beating the weather. I was swift at the market, hoping to return home dry and warm.
My next stop was the grocery store. I needed a few ingredients I couldn’t get at the market. I pushed my cart into the aisle when my cell phone rang. Strange. I rarely receive calls that early in the morning. Maybe my husband needed me to pick something up at the store?
It was my dad.
“Amber?” he asked.
“Yeah?” I said, curious.
His voice cracked.
“Rachel’s gone,” he said.
“What?” I was unsure of what I had just heard. I made him repeat it, hoping it would be a different story.
He repeated it. It was the same.
“No. No. No.” was all I could say.
I abandoned my grocery cart, fumbled through my pockets for my keys, stumbled into my car, and drove home through blinding tears. Flashes from the past 33 years came swirling around my clouded mind. The skies opened. Giant, swift raindrops pummeled my windshield.
|A Rachel hug!
Back home I spent the day on my bed, sobbing uncontrollably. I also spent it on the phone first with Mom, then Dad, then my biological sister, then my brother, and then repeating the process. Then calling friends. And my fairy god parents—Rachel’s mom and dad. The world was a blur.
And the world continued in that blur for months. There was a funeral. I gave a eulogy. There was her birthday, my wedding anniversary, and Christmas. I read and reread everything she ever wrote to me. I flipped through every photo we were ever in together—spanning 33 years. I cried every day at first, then a few times a week, and then just once a week. The pain was crushing. I wasn’t sure I could go on like that.
But I picked myself up each day and went to work. I put a smile on for the world. I baked cookies and posted recipes. All the while, I was dying too: on the inside.
Food Blog Camp 2011
On January 5, 2011, I stepped off another plane in another foreign country—not unlike Rachel and I had done when we were 16. I wasn’t staying a year this time. I was staying only 5 days. I did not expect anything life-changing to occur. I simply hoped I would learn something new to improve my blog, meet some interesting people, and find some warmth from the sun.
I had just arrived at Food Blog Camp, an exclusive opportunity for less than 40 bloggers from around the world. Our home for the week was the Grand Velas Riviera Maya
, a posh resort with pristine swimming pools, immaculate beaches, peaceful jungles, attentive staff, all-inclusive gourmet fare and fancy cocktails. At the very least, this setting should ease away the stress of life and perhaps bring me some peace of mind for a few days.
“Rachel would sure like it here,” I thought. Who wouldn’t?!
On the first night of camp, although I was among many strangers, I had the pleasure of dining with a familiar friend from my home of Sacramento: Elise Bauer
. Elise introduced me to several other California-based bloggers, and I started to feel welcome immediately. While others talked about their personal struggles with their blogs and finding their voices, I dared not say what was on my mind. And I was glad no one asked. I missed Rachel, and I was sad. Not exactly cocktail conversation.
Instead I listened. I learned about some wonderful people, their joys, their day jobs, and their food memories. We scraped our plates clean after a four-course French meal and some wonderfully decadent desserts, and then headed back to our rooms. Elise walked beside me and put her arm around me.
“I’m really glad you’re here,” she said. My heart melted. It was so encouraging to feel the warmth of friendship.
“Me, too,” I said.
The next four days only added layers of warmth to that moment. Through photography classes, I paired with amazing women to take photos of food, chefs, and creamy Kerrygold
butter. (Kerrygold was a camp sponsor, and each of us was hoping to take the best butter photo to win a camp contest.) At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I met someone new—almost 40 warm and welcoming people eager to make new friends and share ideas about blogging skills learned through experience.
Just as I had in Denmark many years ago, I met women who spoke Arabic, French, and Spanish, had lived in Columbia, Brazil, and France. Some had children and husbands, dogs and cats. Some loved writing, some photography, some fashion. And each carried a passion for food and for life.
By the end of camp, some of us were finishing each other’s sentences. We would sit by the pool laughing at full volume, sharing stories of love, loss, and travel. We became friends.
And when camp was over, none of us returned home quite the same. It might only have been five days, but the bonds were made. We now write to each other using the gift of social media, already planning our next gathering—somewhere involving lots of delicious food.
Although the sky has been dark and cloudy since my return to Sacramento from sitting poolside at camp in Mexico, the sun actually made an appearance yesterday. It was bold and warm and wonderful! I went for a run, and while my nose pulled firmly at the clear air and sent it swiftly to my head, for the first time in a long time, I felt happy.
I will always miss Rachel—not a day will pass that I won’t think of her. Yet the laughter and joy she so plentifully and unselfishly gave to me are now mine to share with others. That shared gladness will live on. And now I realize that.
Thus, as the New Year begins, I welcome it with a smile. I’m so grateful for the chance I was given to go to food blog camp, and the opportunity I had to make such memorable friendships.
My reader, I know you will find stories of these new friends on these blog pages throughout the New Year—and beyond. And you’ll see improvements to this site as I implement all that I have learned from those friends.
Now, before the sun fades on this bright, cheerful day, I am heading outside to plant a winter garden. I have not planted anything since May. I have avoided the place I once found healing. With my heart newly filled with friendship, I return to that place to plant life-sustaining food and bring new joy to my world. I think if she were here, Rachel would like that.
|Laughing over tequila at Food Blog Camp 2011. Photo by Marie.
And she’d like my new friends, too. To those friends I have made along the way: thank you.
“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Food Blog Camp 2011 Leaders
Food Blog Camp 2011 Organizer
Food Blog Camp 2011 Participants