When I shuffled into an airport cab in the wee hours of the morning last Friday, the lilac bush outside my back door was covered with clusters of tightly furled buds.
Just three short days later, as I dragged my swag-laden suitcases back into the house on Sunday evening, I realised that very same lilac bush had burst into bloom and was full of gloriously scented purple blossoms.
I think it's a fitting metaphor for the way I feel after this weekend's trip to Eat, Write, Retreat in Washington, DC - my mind is still a jumble of ideas and images, but it's clear that something that had been lying dormant inside of me has been coaxed into riotous bloom after spending three days learning from some of the most inspiring, talented and hilarious people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Since everyone else seems to be doing their recap in a numbered list, I figure I may as well do the same. So, without further ado, here are the Top Five Things I Liked Best About Eat, Write, Retreat:
5. Monica Bhide's Writing Workshop:
I'd read Monica's blog before, so I already knew her as an engaging and inspiring writer. What I didn't know is how engaging and inspiring she is as a teacher. Her workshop made me want to run back to my hotel room to write everything down before I could forget a single word. She made me realise I've gotten lazy with my writing, and that I could do so much better if only I took the time to choose my words and stories more carefully.
It probably helps that Shauna James Ahern was sitting at my table during the workshop, and just blew me away with her ability to effortlessly string words together in near-mystical ways. I offhandedly described a handful of bamboo rice with "it smells like Play-Doh", and like magic, she spun my rather mundane comment into a poetic reference to hungry children with small, chubby hands. I want to write like that when I grow up.
So I plan on taking a lot of Monica's advice to heart. I will write with all my senses. I will begin reading, not just voraciously (as I already do), but indiscriminately - my vocabulary has suffered from its steady diet of corporate policy and fluffy chick lit. I will write something each and every day - not blog posts or policy briefings, but write solely for the sake of writing, like pounding out piano scales one after the other until it becomes stored in muscle memory and ceases to feel like practice.
4. Soul Food at Levi's Port Cafe:
On Saturday night, we took a walking tour of Capitol Hill to explore the sights and tastes of the iconic DC neighbourhood. Capitol Hill is utterly charming, with its colourful houses and lush gardens, so I have to admit I was a little taken aback when our guide literally took us to the wrong side of the tracks (or rather, the wrong side of the underpass) for what was billed as some of the best soul food in town.
While Levi's is in a slightly less charming part of Capitol Hill, there's plenty of charm to be found as soon as you step inside. I loved everything about this place... the cool glass of sweet tea sitting on the table, the antique stained-glass windows, the genuinely warm and friendly service, and (most of all) the generous portions of vinegar-doused Carolina-styled pulled pork and creamy mac n' cheese. It's proof that the best food is sometimes found in the most surprising places.
A big, big thanks to DC Food Tours for taking us on such a delicious adventure.
3. The Mall After Dark:
With a jam-packed schedule, there really wasn't much time left over for the typical touristy things like museums and souvenir shopping and sight-seeing.
That's why I'm glad I managed to overcome my tiredness after the Capitol Hill tour on Saturday night, and joined a small group of other attendees for a late-night walk down the Mall to check out the illuminated monuments.
Mind you, we only managed to check out the Washington and WWII monuments before my feet decided they'd had enough punishment for one day, but at least I got to play tourist for a short while... plus, I got some pretty kick-ass photos out of it.
Many thanks to Maisha from Girl Born Hungry for taking us out-of-towners under her wing and showing us around her hometown. She's a fantastic tour guide. I hope I can return the favour someday!
2. Engaging with Sponsors:
Aside from the huge bags overflowing with swag that were handed to us as soon as we arrived at registration, we were showered all weekend long with products and demos from sponsors like Calphalon, Oxo, California Endive, Lindsay Olives, Jarlsberg Cheese, Goo Goo Clusters and more, we also had plenty of opportunities to chat one-on-one with many of the sponsors' representatives who sat with us side-by-side in seminars and tagged along for outings.
And not just the sponsors, either... all the writers and editors and photographers who shared their wisdom and experience with us in workshops and panels were there for the rest of the weekend, sitting among us "lowly" bloggers. If there were inflated egos in the room, I certainly didn't notice them.
I really enjoyed getting their point of view on blogging, and on what we bloggers can do to engage brands in ethical and appropriate ways. It can be done - it's just a matter of choosing carefully.
And did I mention the swag? I had so much to take home, I had to sit on my suitcase to zip it shut! A waffle maker takes up a surprisingly large amount of space... go figure.
1. Bonding with Bloggers:
This weekend felt like a long-overdue reunion with a lot of old friends I'd never met. I can be a little tongue-tied and intimidated when surrounded by a large group of strangers, but I think the fact that all of us were incredibly passionate about food, writing and/or photography really helped to smooth the way. It probably helps that the group was small enough that I had a chance to speak to almost everyone at some point during the weekend.
I knew I was among friends when Dan announced "I just want steamed crab in a bag" as we cabbed down to the wharf for lunch on Friday, or when I looked around the table at the McCormick & Shmick's lunch on Saturday and realised everyone else was also taking photos of their main course before diving in. These are people with that same itch to reach out and grab life by the tastebuds, and then to turn around and share it through words and photos and recipes. They get it. They really do.
I'm so glad I finally got to meet some of my blogging and Twitter buddies in person, and even more wonderful to make some new connections with bloggers I'd never met before.
Sadly, I didn't take nearly enough photos at the event. I think I was too busy eating and talking and enjoying myself... but here are some of my favourites from the weekend:
Thanks again to Robin Webb and Casey Benedict for organizing such an inspiring conference, and to the team of volunteers who helped them make it happen. Great job, ladies!
I also want to give a big shout-out to one sponsor who wasn't able to join us for the weekend: Canadian Beef. This magical experience couldn't have happened without the conference scholarships they generously offered to five lucky Canadians, myself included.
(PS - Canadian Beef is running another contest right now, and you could win all sorts of prizes ranging from free groceries to kitchen gadgets. Check out the Canadian Beef blog for more info.)
Also, the wonderful folks at Calphalon seem to think they didn't give enough away this weekend, because they're offering my readers an exclusive 10% off on online purchases* at calphalon.com between now and June 6th by using promotional code C95926.
So there you have it. I came, I saw, I ate... and by golly, I can't wait to do it again next year!
* Note: Clearance Items and Gift Certificates do not qualify for 10% discount. Excludes John Boos & Co. Cannot be combined with other special offers or applied to previous purchases. Terms subject to change. Offer valid through June 6th, 2011.