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White Girl In A Muslim World

“Now I can see what American culture is and I miss it terribly.”

by Lauren Blagui

I am a white American female, and I have found myself in a situation I never dreamed I’d be in: I married a Muslim, moved to his native country of Tunisia, and had my first baby there. As a little girl envisioning getting married and having kids, I never imagined I’d be living in a third world country in North Africa and having to adjust to major cultural differences while pregnant and then caring for my new daughter.

My husband had been planning on moving back to Tunisia when I met him, so I knew that was part of the deal going in, and I was open to the idea. As we became more serious fairly quickly, the prospect of moving became more of a reality in my life. A year in, we decided I should go to Tunisia to check it out, meet his family, and see if it was really something I could consider.

I spent three weeks in Tunisia and I had a blast. His family couldn’t have been nicer. I still wasn’t sure I’d love living there, but I was willing to try, especially as I knew my husband really had his heart set on coming home to his wonderful family.

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A year later, we took a leap of faith, and moved to Tunisia. Part of the big move was giving up our rented apartment, selling our cars and enduring the enormous stress that comes with uprooting oneself, but with the added element of moving to another country! Knowing that we did not have a home, job, or car to come back to in America was a terrifying feeling. I had lived there my whole life, and now I was starting over in a foreign land where I didn’t speak the language. Immediately, everything negative stood out to me. My ethnocentrism was undeniable. I simply found America to be better in every sense, and I quickly realized that visiting a place is entirely different from moving there permanently.

I was blessed with a healthy pregnancy and an easy delivery (post-epidural, of course). I delivered at a private hospital in town, so most of my nurses spoke English, thankfully. I still encountered major cultural differences, though. For example, they believe spending skin-to-skin time after the baby is born will stress out the baby. I begged for that special bonding time, but they only placed her butt-up on my stomach while they cut the cord, then carried her all the way out of the room upside down, which alarmed me.

A few minutes later, my husband came to me and asked if I’d packed any soap or towels for her. I told him no, the doctor only told me to bring her clothes. Apparently they didn’t have any soap or towels to bathe her with. I had packed three outfits for my new baby, and when they first brought her to me, they had dressed her in all three outfits at once, even though it was 90 degrees outside! They have such a fear of babies being cold, but I was more worried about her overheating, so as soon as I was left alone, I undressed her and did skin-to-skin.

I half-jokingly refer to myself as a “spoiled-rotten American” because we really don’t know how good we have it until we’re put in a situation like this. I knew it would be challenging and I’d have to get used to living without certain luxuries, but it has been a real test. Occasionally the town turns off the water to work on the pipes, usually not for more than a day. But once we went without running water for 5 days with no warning. The toilet was disgusting, the dishes piled up, and going that long without a shower was unpleasant. Another major problem with living here is there is no heat in the wintertime and it gets cold. We have to wear lots of layers with coats, hats, scarves, and gloves at home all the time.

Another thing that bothers me is the pollution. Everyone litters! Trashcans aren’t readily available in most areas, and there is trash everywhere already, so my guess is that people figure—why not? The motorbikes smell strongly of exhaust so it is not pleasant to roll your window down. Almost everyone smokes, everywhere. It’s difficult to avoid it. Coming from southern California, where it is illegal to smoke indoors, this was a huge adjustment, especially while pregnant and then with a new baby.

imageOn the bright side, we live in a farming community. People always give us food from their farms, such as fresh eggs, milk, cheese, fruit, or almonds. And I’ve learned how to save and reuse almost everything. The amount of trash we produce here is a fraction of what it was in the states, partly because all of our food is made fresh at home.

I never noticed American culture until I left. I’ve always envied other countries for having beautiful, colorful traditions of celebrations and folklore. But now I can see what American culture is and I miss it terribly. There are no occasions for costumes or decorations here, which is what I love most about Halloween and Christmas, for example. Here, they don’t seem to find many reasons to celebrate, except weddings-—they are a big deal, but the music is uncomfortably loud so I don’t enjoy them.

Before my daughter was born, I would get depressed sometimes, especially when I would see the abuse and neglect of animals. My husband isn’t religious so Islam doesn’t affect our daily lives. However, the country follows the teachings of the prophet Mohammed and his disciples, and it is taught that dogs are dirty so they are not to be touched. Dogs are either stray/wild (the better option for them) or tied to a tree their entire lives and fed only bread. It is the most heartbreaking thing I have ever witnessed, and it contributes to my feelings of not fitting in here, as I feel like the only one who cares about dogs here.

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However, children here are beloved by everyone. It is the “village raises the child” type of setting. I’ll just be standing somewhere in public, and some stranger will come up, kiss my baby, and walk away. I’ve been given non-stop unsolicited advice ever since she was born, most of it I disagree with completely.

For example, I was told that four months is a good age to start potty training (this from a woman who never had children). I’ve been told that letting my child chew on a chicken bone with meat on it starting at four months is good for teething. And everyone in the world–even strangers–are so fearful of her getting cold when we leave the house, even if it’s hot out. People panic if they see her in a grocery store. They expect me to wrap her in a wool blanket or not to take her out at all.

But I have figured out that the advice they give, while forceful and insistent, is out of love, and they see it as a gift they are passing to me, as it was given to them by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts down many generations.

I came here with the promise of a strong, supportive family nearby who would help us care for our children. This society is organized for large families. We have property here–an olive farm–and we have big dreams of making a sweet little family business out of it. When the whole family gets together and I see the children helping to prepare food, that is how I’d like to see my children grow up-—not playing video games, but helping around the house, helping at the farm, and playing outside–using their imaginations like my generation and previous generations.

While I have faced many challenges in adjusting to my new life in Tunisia, I try to focus on the positive. It’s interesting how you can get used to something unfamiliar if you just relax and go with the flow. I practice yoga on a daily basis, which helps me get through some moments of discomfort or frustration.

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” Since I moved to Tunisia, I’ve noticed how easy it is to judge the way others live. So now I try to be respectful and open to everything I may learn from my new life here in North Africa. I definitely feel that I am becoming a stronger person because of this experience!

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Lauren Blagui grew up in southern California and went to college in Wisconsin as a History Major. She lived in Los Angeles, California for ten years and worked as a website editor and nanny, then moved to Tunisia with her new husband and is a new mother. She currently writes for and teaches English to Chinese students online.

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Top 5 Spa Tools to Use at Home!

by Nina Wells


A trip to the spa can make you feel like a million bucks, but how often do you have the time to get there? Sure, we make appointments for nail maintenance, and maybe your pedi trips increase as the nice weather hits, but life is busy and little treats fall to the wayside.

Did you know that there are products on the market that can turn those occasional spa treatments into part of your weekly or even daily routine?

I’ve researched the 5 best ones out there to keep you looking your best without having to even leave the comfort of your living room. For even more fun, invite friends, open a bottle of wine, and host a girl’s spa day in! Alternatively, let the family know you’re tapping out for the next hour, find a quiet room, and put on some blissful music to set the mood.


Facial Steamer

Facial treatments at home can be just as luxurious as at the spa. There are a variety of steamers on the market today, and they do a bang up job of reducing stress, opening your pores, cleaning away debris and leaving you with a gorgeous glow. At the top of my list is the Oak Leaf Nano Facial Steamer, for a variety of reasons. First of all, I like simple, and this one is easy to set up and get going; it’s also compact so won’t take up a lot of space. The nano-ionic steam is said to be 4000 times finer than the steam created by other steamers, which means it’s very efficient at opening pores and great for those with acne or other skin blemishes. It’s little but powerful and gives you the option of 2 different settings (3 minute and 6 minute) so it’s easy to fit into a busy schedule and become part of your daily beauty regiment. Follow up your steam with a cleansing, cool rinse and moisturizer for a perfect glow! Retails for $21.99.

Pedicure Spa

Probably my favorite spa treatment and the one I’m most likely to do regularly at home, a pedicure spa can take your feet from callused and tired to beach babe ready. Look for one that is sturdy in build, and then check out the features that work best for you. I love the Helen of Troy HotSpa71bsmRUhUEL._SX522_, which has a solid heating system, and jets that will massage the areas of your feet in just the right spots. It comes with a variety of different attachments depending on what you need; pumice stone, exfoliating brush, or massager. If you like to add your own salts or essential oils the HotSpa accommodates with a special little compartment for those. Finish up your soak by patting legs and feet dry, applying moisturizer and then painting your toenails with your favorite polish! Retails for $127.



facial_brushFacial/ Body Brush


If you’re looking for efficiency and luxury, you can’t go wrong with the Clarisonic Mia 1 cleansing devices.  There are a few to choose from, depending on how much you want to spend, but even the modestly priced Mia range options are a better way to deep clean while improving circulation and getting a facial massage all at the same time. You can opt for the softer or stiffer brushes depending on your ultimate goal. They’re all, of course, waterproof and do a wonderful job of lathering up your preferred soaps. For glowing skin and a “just come from the spa” feel, keep one of these close at hand to your shower! Retails for $129 and comes in pink, purple & white. There’s an engraving option too!

Hair Removal

Tired of making repeated trips to the spa for your hair removal treatments? Ever skipped a couple of sessions? Yikes! You might want to check into the Tri Hair Removal Lasers1552835-main-Lhero an at home spa treatment that means there’s less risk you’ll be competing with your hubby for “best moustache”. This dermatologist recommended laser is safe to use on legs, underarms, face, and your bikini line; the light and heat damage the hair follicle at the root without any negative impact on your skin at all. You may feel a small prickly sensation, but it’s otherwise painless to use. Never miss a session again with the Tri Hair Removal Laser at your disposal! This one’s a little pricey, coming in at $449, but at Sephora, Beauty Insiders get double points.


Gel Nail Kit

The Gelish Complete Starter Kit is your home manicure set with salon quality. It comes with everything you’ll need; cuticle oil, ph bond, an LED light and more! It even comes with 2 polish colours so you can get the gorgeous nails you’re used to without having to wait for an appointment. You’ll get nails that won’t chip or peel for up to three weeks; it’ll take 15 minutes to soak them off before you’re ready to start the process again. Retails for $109.99.


With a variety of these products at your fingertips you’ll save money, time and still pamper yourself with spa treatments at home. Enjoy!


Article by Nina Wells, a guest writer from Clearwells. Nina is a specialist writer and has extensive knowledge in everything related to steam showers, saunas and hydrotherapy benefits.

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Frozen in Time: A memory of my grandfather, Irving, and how he shaped me

photoBy Darrah Le Montre

When I was younger, my grandfather was like a father to me. My own father and I have always had a complicated and challenging relationship, and my grandfather, with all of his gentle, paternal, steady, and quiet strength provided a kind of stability that my father, with his broken childhood, and my mother, with hers, couldn’t offer me. Now, the irony that my grandpa created fractures in my mother’s landscape and spiritual foundation that she’s not been able to fix and yet provided the exact opposite for me, is not lost on me.

When he died two years ago, I remember looking out the kitchen window and feeling his essence around me. I admired the black birds doing somersaults against gravity, gliding through the air without care. The clouds were billowy but felt heavy and burdensome on the sky. The trees were wiry and thin, suddenly. But, still the sight was commanding. “Who am I now that Papa has died?” I thought.

I knew I would be forever changed when Irving Hoffman died because he forever changed me. I used to say to myself, “As long as Papa is alive, everything will be OK.”

There was always a mantle of mystique around my grandfather. Plus, stories are so convoluted as a child. Take his time in the service, for example. As a child, I didn’t understand what my family meant when they said he was “too late to fight in the war.” Not understanding that the war had ended, I imagined him being impunctual. Sleeping too late, he just missed the battlefields of World War II, which in my mind, looked like Balboa Park with a volleyball net.

Family folklore maintained that he met my grandmother at a party, while on leave from the Air Force. She danced the jitterbug manically, chewing gum as he looked on from the kitchen. Rumor has it, that she told a girlfriend she’d one day marry that handsome man with the black hair and tall, slender build.


My grandmother, grandfather & my mom as a baby

There was a commitment to secrecy about his alcoholic father who beat him regularly. I still picture the path Papa took through the tiny bathroom window he had to hammer open with his small fist, to sneak out and roam the streets awhile when his father was feeling particularly ornery.

When my grandfather died, he was 95. He was dying to make it to 100. (He’d appreciate that pun.) For many years, he was fixed on the idea that he would be a centenarian. But, as the physical manifestations of age took residence in his body, he subtly stopped sharing his once feverish plight. His mind was always lucid and his memory was unchanged. The second to last time I visited him in the hospital before he died, he told me the full name of his kindergarten teacher. I can’t tell you the last names of more than two of my high school teachers!

The complicated part of losing a man who is irreplaceable, is coming to terms with the fact that you will never be the same as a woman.

I finally had a man to lean on. A man who would listen to me share stories about my day. Who helped me pay speeding tickets when I was eighteen and made a paltry income working as a full-time receptionist with no benefits and no car insurance. He demanded my address every time I moved, which was frequently, and sent a fifty-dollar bill each year for Hanukkah. In 2013, he moved into an assisted living facility. Up until then, he called twice monthly to check in on me and find out if “all the little puzzle pieces” were coming together. He was like clockwork and I appreciated it like an astronaut greeting the impossibly distant fairytale man in the moon. Consistency was a vacancy, a phantom otherwise.

From the time I was nineteen-years-old and for six years afterward, family members told me to stay quiet about my fluctuating sexual preferences. To refrain from sharing my sexuality with co-workers, friends, bosses, and especially with Papa. “He’ll have a stroke!” I was told. It was hurtful, but I silenced myself. In some ways, I understood their apprehensions.

When I was twenty-five, I told him that I was in love with a woman and may even marry her. He said, “Well, then, I must meet her!” He invited my then-girlfriend over for dinner in his home.

Much to my relief, he didn’t die because I was bisexual. In fact, he adored my girlfriend, and even wrote me a letter the following day—mailed and handwritten, of course, never emailed—letting me know of his support.

His house smelled like a combination of warm, freshly cooked chicken and potatoes, Polo cologne, mothballs, and time. There was stillness there. The piano in the front room; his beloved coo coo clock that was as loyal as he was; the patio, which oft-piped Frank Sinatra and other old tunes from its aerial speakers, all of it had a friendship with a soft still quality. Peace, I think it’s called. I just loved it there.

His home reminded me of my grandmother and their Independence Day barbecues, celebrating their anniversary, him wearing a “Kiss The Cook” apron and chef’s hat, manning the meat. Despite the fact that my grandmother died there, I never felt like there was any negativity hiding in the thick petal pink carpet fibers or floor-to-ceiling gold lamé wallpaper.

Not long before he died, Papa was thrilled to meet my infant daughter. Snug in her stroller, he looked over her, the way he had looked over me for so many years. He proudly declared, “Not many babies meet their great-grandparents!”

Sometimes, I drive by his old house, now gutted and resold, and imagine him walking down the front steps, full head of hair, a few greys loitering around, pants hanging off of his slim frame, black pen and index cards sticking up from his shirt pocket, waving to me before disappearing into the house, whose smell still surfaces in my mind once in a while, when I’m relaxed enough to let myself miss him.

5 Truths About Eating Disorder Recovery (and Lin-Manuel Miranda)

image2The World Turned Upside Down

by Leah Ilana 

It was a monumental event—I was turning twenty-five years old. Two years ago, I had been closer to death than to life, spending eleven of my twenty-five years with anorexia nervosa. I am five months into somewhat of a rough recovery. It’s the furthest in recovery I have ever come. I also live and breathe theatre, Hamilton in particular. I could not be standing here today without the power of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton. So this is my love letter, my thank you to Lin-Manuel Miranda, for giving me my life back. And here is my two cents worth on recovery.

Disclaimer: I don’t feel like a recovery expert, and I know what worked for me and my disorder may not work for anyone else.

But, I have made strides far from the hysterical, starving girl I was, and I have learned a thing or two along the way. These are my truths, take them or leave them as they are:

Truth #1: Recovery does not end at the hospital

While it’s true maintaining a healthy weight is key and your body and mind can’t function properly when you’re engaging in anorexic behaviors, it’s not enough to just go through treatment. It’s not what you see in all the movies where the protagonist (usually a white, straight female) hits “rock bottom”, is hospitalized, and promptly sees the light, ‘thank you Jesus, amen, I will eat like a normal person now,’ and the work is over. I had no Jesus (unless you count being a Hamilton fangirl), still can’t eat like a normal person yet, and the work is far from over.

I was blessed that I was able to go into a hospital and get properly weight-restored.  I thought that would be the hardest part of recovery, being in a hospital and being forced to contend with three meals and three snacks a day. I was dead wrong. Hard as I struggled in the hospital, going out into the world and living by the values I was supposed to embody in recovery was infinitely harder. I promptly got out of the hospital, and did no such thing. It was too much, living a real life. I collapsed in on myself, and had to find a way out, mining through the dark without a headlamp.

Truth #2: You will need a push into recovery

Don’t feel ashamed if you need external rewards or if you don’t feel good about recovery at first—that’s normal.

Being “ready” for recovery is some bullshit. I was not “ready” for recovery when I recovered. I had to be bribed into it. I was broke and struggling and I longed for the Hamilton book (the “Hamiltome”), because I had resigned myself to the idea that I would actually never see the show. If I made it three months eating all my meals, maintaining my weight, and not purging, my mother would buy me the book. It was the hardest three months of my life, but I did it.

Truth #3: What fuels your disorder can fuel your recovery

I have a mind geared towards passion and obsession. Those traits thrived in my constant obsession about food and calories and exercise and the number on the scale. Eating disorders are isolating and all consuming, and dear god if you don’t step away from the mirror, you will be stuck in that horrible time suck of counting your bones forever. I’ve been there, and lost my passions along the way. So I threw myself, body and soul, into Hamilton. Hamilton, for some inexplicable reason, reached me through the haze of anorexia and grabbed me by the heart and would not let go. Hamilton soothed me and my anxiety—and eating disorders are very much about anxiety—and maladaptive coping skills.

Throw yourself into something that is not your eating disorder. Anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. There is something to love that’s stronger than your demons.

Truth #4: Relapses will happen, and you have to learn to forgive yourself for them

I’m still working on this one too. After nearly five months of recovery, I am starting to relapse right now. I don’t want to relapse anymore. I want to get better. But eating disorders are an addiction at their core, and it’s so easy to slip back into behaviors. A slip can turn into so much more very easily, which is precisely what is happening to me right now.

A relapse is not a failure. It does not mean you’ll never get better. It means you’re still working tirelessly towards one goal—recovery—but might need some extra love and help along the way. Guilt and shame go hand in hand with relapse, but I urge anyone who is struggling with a relapse to forgive themselves for that. You are not lesser because you’re having a hard time grasping recovery. Falling is part of the learning process. Forgiveness is not dismissal, however. Be honest with yourself when you’re engaging in behaviors. Don’t let that slide. Be gentle with yourself, but also be firm and recognize when you need to change your behaviors or thought patterns.

Truth #5: Recovery is agonizing, but your life is worth more than death at the hands of an ED

So many people speak of recovery as this accomplishment that you can have, full of motivational poster phrases. Real recovery is a mess of fear and getting trapped and finding your way through the dark. Real recovery is a process that does, I’ll admit, take a great portion of my day. Recovery also allowed me to see Hamilton, the show that saved my life, and meet some of the cast, and share my recovery story with them. It’s allowing me to create a life I love. Your life is worth more than your eating disorder, and if you have nothing to cling to in those difficult moments, cling to that. Cling to your inherent worth as a human being. And, like Alexander Hamilton before you, don’t throw away your shot.

If you need help with an eating disorder, visit: NEDA

Follow Leah Ilana on:
Tumblr: @piecesofkessa
Instagram: @amutemockingjay
Twitter: @agent_south

Q&A with Muslim-born Composer Farzam Salami

Q&A with Farzam Salami

by Darrah Le Montre


Where were you born?

FS: I was born in Tehran, the capital of Iran.

When did you start writing music?

FS: I started playing music at age two. My parents tell me that I started playing an Iranian drum called the Tombak.

How dangerous was it in Tehran for a musician wanting to express themselves?

FS: Around 10 to 15 years ago it was much more difficult to do music in Iran, now it’s better. But if an artist gets to be known worldwide and works with western artists, especially Americans, then the Iranian government will be restrictive about it. I had interviews with Iranian-American satellite TV channels which caused me so many troubles with the Iranian government.

Are you a practicing Muslim?

FS: No, I’m not a practicing Muslim.

Do you have any Christian friends?

FS: I have many Christian friends and my first concert in America was with well-known Gospel singer “ Kadesh” AKA Desiree Coleman Jackson.

Are you a US citizen?

FS: I have a Green Card, so I am a legal U.S. resident. In two years I will be a U.S. citizen!

Do you feel unsafe in the United States?

FS: I don’t feel unsafe in U.S. but I have faced difficult situations that could be construed as racism. For example, some industry people didn’t want to work with me because I am from Iran, and many others didn’t want to give me an opportunity as they considered me a stranger/foreigner.


What inspires your music?

FS: Mostly my life story inspires me to write! When I was younger, I started writing music to reflect different personal experiences. Also, world events inspire me; whether they are other people’s life stories or victims of terror attacks or natural disasters.

Do you have friends or family in your country of origin that are trying to come to the United States?

FS: Yes, my mom, as well as my married sister in Iran. They have both faced difficulties because of my collaborations with different western artists here. For example, there was fallout for them after I wrote and dedicated a song to President Obama called Utopia of Peace.

How do you feel about Donald Trump?

FS: About Donald Trump, I believe in America, democracy and that laws are much stronger than a person like Donald Trump to change or remove them. Donald Trump will make everything worse in Middle East and it’s already a messed up situation.

How do you feel about the burkini ban in France?

FS: Burkinis are bad in France, in my honest opinion. I don’t like burkinis, but I think forcing people to remove them is against human freedom, as long as they are not a threat to public safety.


What do you love about the United States?

FS: What I love about America is the freedom and opportunities that are available for everyone. Even though it was extremely difficult at the beginning not having ANY relatives here and moving here not knowing English. But I still believe America is land of opportunities.

You’ve mentioned that you have been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. Explain this?

FS: Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the first inspirations in my life, after I read the translation of “I Have a Dream Speech.” It changed many things in me as a 15-year-old boy, which made me want to move to America.

Where can fans listen to your music?

FS: My website: and and friend me on Facebook.

LISTEN to Farzam’s song Utopia of Peace below!

Dear Cracker Barrel


A West Coast Girl Meets a Southern Dining Staple: A Love Story

by Darrah Belle


Thirty-something years ago, I was born in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Encino. Aside from moving to New England for two years in my early-twenties, I’ve lived in Los Angeles my whole life. Not unlike Sarah Jessica Parker’s rendition of a single New Yorker obsessed with her city, I’d take a baseball bat to anybody who had negative stuff to say about my hometown. That being said, I can and do deconstruct it quite frequently.

About eight years ago, I was hit with a flash fever of interest in the South, after writing a review of wine heiress Linda Mondavi’s Atlanta spa, 29 Spa at the Mansion on Peachtree. That flash fever spread and became a total-body obsession with all things Southern.

When I think of the South, I think of Cracker Barrel, a famous casual family restaurant with an adjoining “Old Country Store” not unlike the general stores you saw as a kid on “Little House on the Prairie,” where local folks got goods on a tab. Cracker Barrel is a place you might see Dixie Carter choosing an Easter dress for her grandchild.

When I think of the South, I also think of their famed southern hospitality, fanciful southern belles, and culture of kindness, shabby-chic décor, strong sense of patriotism, national pride, and stubborn streak. It is a vastly different place from anything I’ve known.

With eyes as wide—and molasses slow—as a Savannah, Georgia yawn I observe judgeless and from a distance, ways of life totally foreign from mine: hunting, fishing, wearing fur, barbecue and political conservatism. I appreciate that most men there who identify strongly with their masculinity are using their hands daily. Men drive trucks to haul stuff, not to raise the rims. Driving in Nashville, taking in the gorgeous Vanderbilt campus, you’ll see many references to a unified sense of Christian faith, something Los Angeles prides itself on not having.

The South is a hodgepodge of interesting people and things that leave me feeling all warm, buzzy, comforted, wholesome, quirky, and curious.

For the last couple years, I’ve visited at least two southern states each year. Last year, I visited San Antonio, Texas and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee (Nashville has become an annual tradition). This year, I hope to visit North Carolina and South Carolina, having already enjoyed Nashville earlier this summer.

It’s hard to believe but I only just discovered Cracker Barrel in 2015. It was a fateful day, when my partner drove us into the parking lot one rainy night after a long travel day in Texas. I told him I’d wait in the car. It was late, plus I don’t like eating when I’m wet. He was adamant that I’d love the place.

Begrudgingly, I gathered my scarf and hat and coat and pride and lagged far behind in the giant parking lot until I reached the restaurant’s front porch. Outside most Cracker Barrel’s, visitors are greeted by two-dozen oversize wood rocking chairs that sit aside several small tables adorned with checkers games. Quaintly, the checkerboard is made of a rug!

I felt like I’d maybe fallen down a velvet-lined gingham-print rabbit hole. “WHAT!?” I exclaimed.

A smile stretched across his face.

Like Goldilocks, I began testing each rocking chair to find the one that was jusssst right. They even had tiny doll-size ones for toddlers that fit my little daughter perfectly! He had to drag me inside. When you enter Cracker Barrel, there is a ubiquitous sign in the foyer alluding to their welcome policy.


After paying $2M in 2006 to end a lawsuit, this sign and its message were added to every store and menu

A little history on Cracker Barrel: Founded in 1969 by Danny Evins, its first store was in Lebanon, Tennessee, which remains the company’s headquarters. Its name references old-time country stores where people played checkers atop barrels used to carry crackers and other wares. The chain’s stores were at first positioned near Interstate Highway exits in the Southeastern and Midwestern US, but it has expanded across the country. As of 2012, there are 639 stores in 43 states.

Controversies (why that sign exists): During the 1990s, the company was the subject of controversy for its official stance against gay and lesbian employees and for discriminatory practices against African American and female employees. A US Department of Justice investigation found that Cracker Barrel discriminated against minority customers; patrons complained of racially segregated seating and service quality. In an agreement with the USDOJ, Cracker Barrel has implemented non-discrimination policies and pledged to focus on improving minority representation and civic involvement, particularly in the black community.

In early 1991, an intra-company memo called for employees to be dismissed if they did not display “normal heterosexual values.” It was reversed two months later and in 2002 sexual orientation was added to the company’s sexual discrimination policy.

Reparations: The terms of the 2006 lawsuit included new equal opportunity training; the creation of a new system to log, investigate, and resolve complaints of discrimination; and the publicizing of its non-discrimination policies.

Since the early 2000s, Cracker Barrel has provided training and resources to minority employees. As of 2002, minorities made up 23 percent of the company’s employees, including over 11 percent of its management and executives.

The company has been praised for its gender diversity, particularly on its board of directors. Three of its 11 members are women. CEO, Sandra Cochran, is the second woman in Tennessee to hold that office in a publicly traded company.

Part of the reason I mention all of this is because I’ve been told more than a few times by Angelenos that Cracker Barrel is “racist.” That the South is “racist.” That me flirting with moving there = turning a blind eye to a checkered history much dirtier than the games innocently displayed outside their stores.


When I was younger, I was a militant vegetarian. A staunch feminist. A persuasive liberal. A “progressive.”

I considered myself “tolerant” and yet, I was quite intolerant of anybody who disagreed with me. I remember penning an essay in my psych class about how much I hated intolerance. My teacher noted my hypocrisy.

I bring this up because my own politics have changed since having a child and living a more “straight” life. I stopped being a cookie cutter pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-Republican feminist and I started thinking, policy by policy, situation by situation about the world as it presented itself to me. I stopped being predictable.

In this process, I’ve come to realize how truly intolerant I’ve been to people who live differently than me. While flaring up like a rash at protesters outside a gay and lesbian rally, I failed to see how I was part of the problem. I failed to see that I was the other side of that intolerant coin.

Now, I look at it like this. How can I ask conservatives to “accept” my life choices, if I don’t accept theirs? How can I ask people to stop trying to change me when I am trying to change them?

I have no idea how they were raised, what they believe and why, what a day in their life looks like, really, or why they are pro-Military, for example. Why they are pro-life, for example. Why their religion is so engrained in their culture and family and community, not unlike the way driving a luxury car in a designer dress to a movie premiere is a spiritual experience to an Angeleno.

I believed in my self-righteousness for so long that it blinded me.

What does this have to do with Cracker Barrel? While I can’t stand behind discrimination, obviously, what I can get behind is change. Transformation. What I can support is strong roots that allow the trees to sway. When I was a feminist, I wanted everything and everybody to change yesterday. After all, they had been wrong for so long! What I didn’t take into consideration was that everybody didn’t and couldn’t think like me. Whether age, geography, religion, nationality, life experience or simply different mindsets came into play, I wasn’t always going to win.

Something happened when I took a step back and began looking at life through a different lens. Yes, I can still be an activist. Yes, I can still protest, fundraise, spread awareness on social media, curate conversations, write blog posts, and engage friends and family in dialogue about politics and gender issues, but I don’t have to convince anybody of anything and I can keep my views to myself sometimes! I don’t have to “save” the world.

Another point to mention is that there is a reverence for others and their unique passageway through life that comes along with true tolerance. I actually learn so much more when I shut my mouth and listen.


Me and my sleepy angel outside Cracker Barrel

Visiting Iowa in 2011, I went to the Iowa State Fair where prized livestock are fawned over like satin gloves at Bloomies. Normally, I would never enter a gigantic room with caged animals I knew were about to die. It would be too much for me and I’d no doubt lecture whoever owned these animals and probably get kicked out.

That day, though, I decided to experience the Midwest as natives do. I watched these heaving, dehydrated, visibly exhausted and miserable pigs laid flat in small pens and I offered my love to the pigs without judgment of their owners. I recognized that I could not end animal slaughter that summer day in Iowa.

I spoke at length with a dairy farmer about her treatment of cows, unable to help myself from asking about the ethics of their entrapment. What I saw was that she was kinder to these animals that any vegan has ever been to me. These cows were harmonious. I wasn’t going to change her mind. She didn’t have to change mine. But she did open it.


For these reasons, I can eat at Cracker Barrel with a clean conscience. Because I respect the South. I don’t have to agree with everything that happens there to love it.

So, let’s get back to my first time at Cracker Barrel!

At each table, you can happily play peg solitaire. This particular peg solitaire board has a snarky rating system. So, while you await the complimentary cornbread and biscuits you find out whether:

  • One Peg = You’re a Genius
  • Two Pegs = You’re Pretty Smart
  • Three Pegs = You’re Just Average
  • Four Pegs or More = Just Plain Dumb



I NEVER get less than two pegs. I’ll settle for “pretty smart,” I guess. (Unless anybody knows how to WIN this game?)


Before getting wound up about losing, and just before my sweetie dials up a cheat sheet on his iPhone, the food comes!


As a pescetarian (I eat fish and the rest of me is a vegetarian, hence pescetarian!) my favorite pick off the Fancy Fixin’s menu is the Grilled Rainbow Trout. It comes with baby carrots and steak fries. I love getting the vegetarian vegetable soup first as an appetizer. If I haven’t stuffed my face with too many bottomless biscuits, then I can actually enjoy my meal.


Lemon Pepper Grilled Rainbow Trout–Off the Fancy Fixin’s Menu!

There’s a summer menu, that includes:


Campfire Grilled Chicken and Veggie Dinner with Baby Carrots, Potatoes & Corn on the Cob


Peach cobbler is my dessert of choice


Carrot cake is really scrumptious, too!

Cracker Barrel serves traditional Southern cuisine, ie: Comfort Food!


Their seasonal menu includes pumpkin spice pancakes!

On the way out, I perused the Old Country Store and picked out some cute eyelet dresses for Daisy, and snagged a few scented candles, cutesy signs and picked up a Blake Shelton CD. We returned two more times—that week.


So far, I’ve visited Cracker Barrel’s in: Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, Nevada, and Utah. What I love so much is that it is like being transported into a different era, a different time in space, a different stage is set and I am nowhere near Los Angeles. It’s not uncommon to hear guests speaking about God, about family, about tradition, about local gatherings, about church, about the Old Country Store and what’s in it that day, about their food (without mention of fat or calories).

It’s for those reasons and so many more, not the least of which are the local relics and old time black & white photos of the owner’s family pinned to the wall, that I enjoy being transported to an unfamiliar, yet achingly fulfilling locale. And I’ll never apologize for it. Not when it’s compared to Denny’s (seriously, people?) or when it’s called out on its past. (God knows, I have my own past.)


Having fun at Cracker Barrel!

Cracker Barrel is like that one friend who you just can’t get mad at. When you look at her all you see is her beauty and how fun she is, and all of the shit she did wrong before just melts away. Like that time in the Nashville location by the Opryland Hotel, when the woman bussing our table threw a handful of napkins in my face. I just smile to myself. Maybe she was having a bad day.

That’s how Cracker Barrel has taught me true tolerance. Through my stomach.


Darrah Le Montre is a writer and journalist and devoted mom. Her work has been published by Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Fix and nudie blog SuicideGirls.

Married To A Man Who’s Married To His Work

What happens when you find the man of your dreams, and his dreams of success eat up most of the relationship real estate?


Unfortunately, workaholics don’t come with an off switch

Editor’s Note: This article is my point of view as the partner of a male workaholic.The feminist in me feels obliged to acknowledge that no doubt women are workaholics too! But, I’m not talking about them in this piece. Wanted to clear that up ahead of time. xo

 By Darrah Belle

 The most commonly accepted word to describe men who spend the majority of their time working, even to the detriment of other areas in their life, is workaholic. This word tends to describe a man who works long hours, ignoring the concept of balance, in favor of meeting his professional goals and dreams. There is a level of obsession and compulsion that differentiates him from somebody who works long hours to make ends meet or somebody who is simply ambitious.

When you’re in a romantic relationship with a workaholic, you have to figure out for yourself whether your desire for a successful man trumps your level of need for physical and emotional attention, time and affection, or if it’s possible to help him find the right balance to satisfy you both.

My partner Richard is a successful talent agent. He has co-owned his agency for over 25 years. Those around him are equally driven. His passion for what he does and what he creates with his clients is incomparable. Let’s just say his calling found him in his early-twenties and they’ve danced together seamlessly for decades.

I’ve been more whimsical career-wise, and while at times very ambitious, I’ve had probably a hundred jobs and some of them I downright hated. I’ve always been a good writer. But before committing to it as a career, I first tried my hand at acting, modeling, singing, voice-overs, and a slew of jobs like retail sales, babysitting, public relations, massage therapy, radio co-hosting, waitressing, and even being a dominatrix for two days, before realizing that I wanted to switch gears and work in hospitality. Whew! I’m breathy just writing that.

I’ve finally enrolled in school and completed my first class in a two-year college-level certification program. I am SO excited! Especially because career clarity was harder for me to reach. (Or perhaps I needed to have faith that it would come in its own divine time?) It feels so right. I’m super grateful.

Before finding that clarity, motherhood found me. And, it’s my ultimate. My daughter is my everything! I prioritize her without question. Being a mother is the most important role I’ll ever play. Being Daisy’s mom is my calling on the most deep and profound level. I am built to take care of her and she is designed to need it from me. It’s a match made in heaven! For some time, trying to pinpoint a career while being 100% devoted to motherhood seemed like a fork in the road already littered with utensils.

Luckily, after much prayer and after doing some sweat-laden, ninja-type feng shui, I cast off enough old energy to find the truth coiled within me.

Back to Richard and me. In April, we planned a weekend getaway to Las Vegas in the form of a family-friendly jaunt to Sin City. There is an annual rockabilly weekend called Viva Las Vegas that has become a family tradition. They have a rockin’ vintage car show and ballrooms toppling over with vintage clothes, accessories and even baby clothes with a retro bent.

Richard had been working a ton lately and we thought this would be a perfect opportunity to spend some real, dedicated time together doing something we both love: shopping!

Unfortunately, workaholics don’t come with an off switch. And much to many men’s chagrin, neither do women’s needs. My need to connect, cuddle, talk, and spend uninterrupted time together wasn’t met. Sure, there were times when we had a meal and his phone wasn’t on the table, in it’s usual slot to the right of his fork. Sure, we had an afternoon where he didn’t post on Facebook for an hour. But, for the most part, we used our downtime to engage in separate activities: I napped while he gambled; I watched baby while he made work calls; we both updated our social media at the end of the night while laying side-by-side in silence in a giant hotel bed.

When you’re in a long-term relationship it’s difficult to undo certain habits, even with the best of intentions. I am working on being a more direct communicator and I’m practicing it by asking him for more one-on-one time without our cellular devices attached to our hip. I take responsibility for using my phone in bed too. It’s such a mood-kill!


Me and Sara Bareilles (Photo bomb by Darren Criss)

Earlier this summer, Richard made his directorial debut as the creative director and co-producer of The Little Mermaid In Concert Live to Film at The Hollywood Bowl. What a thrilling three nights celebrating him and his latest accomplishment! It was also fabulous to meet the likes of John Stamos (sweetheart!), Rebel Wilson (quieter than I expected!), and to engage in authentic conversation with Tony-award nominee Sara Bareilles, who starred as Ariel. I got to meet the original voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson. Everybody was in awesome spirits and having the time of their lives. Some stars even wrote Richard afterward and declared the project to be among the best in their memorable careers.


Two Rebel Girls

But, what really struck me was how much I truly enjoyed dressing up each night. The first night, I was retro-Ariel. Donning a vintage dress and crazy seashell hat from the 1950s, I rushed into the Bowl on opening night glowing like a lit cigarette. The second night, I was a goddess-y mermaid, wearing a flowy blue dress with spaghetti straps and a complicated feathery contraption on my head that I later learned was called a “fascinator.” The third and final night was my favorite, as I discovered my alter ego, “Bubbles,” a space mermaid. Bubbles wore a cropped pink bob with blunt bangs paired with a long flowing yellow dress. I had major contouring and stunning eye makeup courtesy of Joseph Adivari and Chantel Sewell.


Meet Bubbles!

However, before the show’s debut, I had morphed into somebody very distant from the mysterious and decadent, if shallow, “Bubbles.” Who I’d metamorphosed into was a nagging, irritable and unhappy wife figure. I was lonely and dissatisfied with how much time Richard wasn’t spending with me. In fact, watching the Tony’s recently made me wonder: How does Hamilton star Lin Manuel Miranda’s wife Vanessa Nadal do it? 


Me with Alan Menken, composer of The Little Mermaid

Let me clarify: Richard is always busy. His mind is always going. His foot is always tapping. His phone is always on. Always. My last words most nights is: “Please turn the ringer off.” But, this was different somehow. TLM was an all-consuming project. And, instead of sharing in his excitement and even stress, I found myself leaning into resentment.

He did his best to carve out a couple evenings a week to spend with baby and me. He tried to isolate at least one weekend day for a family outing to an amusement park or the mall or even a date night. Mostly though, he wanted to talk about the show and he couldn’t understand why I didn’t.

I know that a man’s identity is closely tied into his work. Those two things are often braided, so if his work life is going well, he feels happy and content. If not, then his confidence takes a hit. I want Richard to feel good and to meet his calling. I want to honor his purpose and also be considerate of the place in him where the braid of self and work is woven. I also want to honor my own needs, and I need him to as well. That intersection in our partnership is where we are still finding our way.


The three nights of The Little Mermaid at the Bowl were blissful and satisfying to me: a woman who wanted for so long to be an actress and eventually surrendered my will to God’s will. I grieved a while back for not succeeding in acting to the superstardom level I had dreamed of as a child. I unburdened myself from the mountains of failure that I had carried since I was a teen.

Having the opportunity to support Richard without feeling like I was an outsider, or a wannabe or a struggling actor felt really good. (Because I had felt like one for many years.) Instead, I felt whole and real and that I was exactly where I belonged. I was able to express myself in costume, and as a support system for the man I love. I was able to cultivate relationships with strangers in the cast who I can now call friends and who genuinely want to know me more. That felt really good!


Sometimes a girl just needs to twirl!

I was also able to mingle with some of my readers, who complimented me on recent blog posts, and told me how important they were, while describing the personal ways in which my words inspire, encourage and comfort them. That felt really good!

There’s no fancy bow to wrap the unique gift of being with a workaholic, and the heartbreak and understanding and ongoing process it takes to make our relationship last. But it is a gift. No relationship is perfect. Everybody has something! Or else, there’d be no friction!

After the last curtain call, Richard planned a 9-day family voyage to Shanghai, China. We went for the opening of Shanghai Disneyland and stayed at the Four Seasons and Disneyland Hotel. It was a special and unique trip. I’d never been to China, and incidentally, because of something called a HeHe doll, China was obsessed with my daughter!


What came first: The Daisy or the HeHe Doll?

Despite what social media and television may have you believe, every relationship has its struggles. Sometimes you just have to don Mickey Mouse ears, count your blessings and send more love into the world. That’s what we did, and we’re happier for it!

…Follow Your Bliss xoxo

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12310606_10153273537971344_998845647534177497_nDarrah Le Montre is a writer and journalist and devoted mom. Her work has been published by Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Fix and nudie blog SuicideGirls.