The OG American Cat – Part One

My first dedicated companion out of college was a cat named Ollz. I adopted him from a shelter I was volunteering at, originally falling in love with his cross-eyed look-alike brother, but getting him instead, the only one left in the litter.

He was all black and quite pretty. As a young 20 something living on my own for the first time and suddenly having a living thing in my care, I fretted over him. When he blinked too often, I worried his eye would explode. When he ate too much, I worried about his diet. I fussed and hovered. He looked off into the distance and walked away.

Ollz had marked me as his person. He hid from everyone else. He was not the friendly cat who wooed visitors because visitors didn’t know he existed. But he was endlessly affectionate with me, and still the best cuddler I know, the little spoon.

Sadly, for reasons still unknown to me, he developed some behavioral problems early in his little kitty life. He loved sneaking into my roommate’s bedroom and peeing on her very expensive designer duvet. In an old house with broken doors, he would manage to get into the room just long enough to do the job before guiltily running away. This happened often. The duvet. Rinse and repeat.

After two years of these adventures, I moved into my own apartment in an effort to find independence and to save other people’s belongings from the prolonged and ever-present smell of cat pee. He stayed in his kitty carrier for two weeks in protest of the change, but once he emerged into the brand new small one bedroom apartment downtown, all was well. We had a (very small) space for ourselves. Two peas in a pod. He was always there because he couldn’t leave. My warm soft cuddle buddy in my first apartment on my own.

Things only went sour again when we went from being two peas in a pod to three. It was getting serious with a new man in my life; my boyfriend (now husband) had moved to America, and started spending weekends visiting from NYC.

Ollz did not approve of this. He’d glower and mope, sad that his spot on the bed was taken and my attention was no longer his own.

In protest, Ollz found that intruder’s pajamas pants in the living room one evening, nicely folded and delicately placed on the couch, and peed all over them. Goodbye cruel thief, he must have thought.

I looked at my boyfriend and shrugged. It was to be expected, I explained.

Ollz was my protective (and sometimes misguided) best friend in those years. We grew up together. He was there when I was fearful of a loud sound at night, or feeling tired from a long day at my out-of-college job ordering other people lunch. He taught me what loyalty meant. And he taught me what a poorly behaved young male can do when dissatisfied with the world or simply because he feels like it: mysteriously pee on things he doesn’t like. These lessons I hold onto still to this day.

The Sheep

When my husband and I moved, we finally got what I feel is my very first adult house. It has a yard. It has three sets of stairs that lead to other parts of our own place. I have never lived in a house with stairs.

Another thing that we got that signifies adulthood to me: our first sheep.

This sheep hide is your standard issue couch throw from IKEA. But I never thought we would have an apartment that would be nice enough to complement one.

When we moved here, we were obsessed with our friend’s IKEA cow, laying fashionably on the tiled floor in the house across the street, making the grand room look more cozy and personal.

This cow started a long and curious tradition of hide collections within our circle of (now mostly vegan) friends. We all chipped in to buy another friend his first sheep when he moved to this fine country. His partner later learned they had a secret goat in storage.

At the very least, each house I visited had their own fluffy white fashion fur on the couch. I loved visiting each one, absent mindedly patting it down as I chatted or drank.

For years, I wondered, would we ever be able to have an IKEA animal skin of our own? Would we ever reach this level of luxury?

Well, we have finally arrived.

And (despite becoming a vegetarian in this pandemic and all this being somewhat problematic) I have to admit: my sheep skin feels good.

Solo Trip

One year ago this week, I took a vacation with myself to Heidelberg, right before starting my Master’s degree and right after quitting my job.

I had no expectations. I just wanted to eat soft pretzels and walk around for a few days. Read some books. Sit in some cute German cafes. Reflect on my life and be by myself.

It’s crazy to think this was my last trip outside of the Netherlands since then. I now have endless hours to look inward and be by myself, for myself, but then it felt like a treat.

There is a long laundry list of reasons why this pandemic is awful. Isolation is used to punish prisoners, after all. But there is also something calm and quiet about finding smaller things to appreciate in life. Being with yourself without the expectation of productivity or “getting things done”. That’s what my trip to Germany was last year. A reset. A bunch of books and me. Wandering around. Watching Netflix in my little single hotel bed after dark because there was nothing else to do, no one else to see. I didn’t know anyone in Heidelberg. I had no real reason to visit. I just went because I could.

Now, no one can go anywhere without a reason. The Netherlands has a curfew. People are rioting, destroying stores, fighting with police.

As we get antsy and angry and claustrophobic in this lock down, it’s good to remember that sometimes there is calm where you are. You don’t have to go anywhere to be by yourself. And sometimes a vacation alone is just what you need.


When we were young, we were only allowed to shop at second-hand stores or in the sale rack at discounted department stores. In fact, usually in second hand stores, we had to look for the clothing marked down as well. A bag for a buck. All red dotted items half off. My mom would instruct us, “Only pick out things with the red sticker on the tag.”

She knew every good Church and charity thrift store within a 20 mile radius of where we were. Even vacationing with my grandma in Connecticut, she had several on her list. Sometimes the whole gang would pile into the car and go off to the “Hole in the Wall” which my dad and sister renamed “Hole in Head” for no particular reason. Perhaps because my dad was never a fan of shopping.

When I was young, I absolutely hated thrift stores. I hated the smell. I hated sorting through the pilled cloths, full of imaginary germs. I was always worried that someone would see me inside. I sulked around, picking up clothing with two fingers and giving dirty looks. I desperately wanted to go to the mall, to buy a fancy sweater from Abercrombie and Fitch.

But my mom was a dedicated thrifter way before it was cool. A way to save money and still get good quality clothing, she said. She was practical. She reminded me that if someone I knew saw me in this church thrift store, they were probably shopping there too. I never believed her. I hid behind shoe racks anytime the door opened. This went on for years.

After college though, thrifting (maybe surprisingly) became my hobby and my passion. As a penny pincher by nature, I understood something that I was too self conscious to realize when I was young. Second hand is better, more sustainable, cheaper and more fun. The variety! The finds! I’d scour church thrift stores before kids in Brooklyn knew what they were. (This is a lie, I am sure, but I was sad when my favorite church was run over 8 years ago by college kids, and all the fabulous five dollar leather jackets I used to find were swooped up by someone else much faster than me.) I still picked and grimaced, but this time with purpose and resolve. I would search racks for hours. Look through tables of clothes. I would be the girl who said “7 dollars!” when I received a complement for my boots.

The last time I visited my mom in SF for her birthday, my sister and I told her she could pick whatever she wanted to do for her day. First, as most moms often do, she bought herself a gift (a little backpack at a store in Chinatown) and thanked us all afternoon for the present she paid for herself. Then, afterwards, she wanted to do our favorite girl activity: hit the stores. For my mom, this obviously didn’t mean Bloomingdales. Her first choice was a Goodwill outlet, so not even the Goodwill, but a store that was even cheaper than that, with buckets of used shoes without a match. You paid by the pound. Nothing organized. All on the conveyer belt. The second was a bit farther away, a thrift store donating to cancer research, a great cause but a crazy establishment. I found a bunch of bloody tissues on the dressing room floor.

The funny thing about my mom: when she wants to dress up, to make something an occasion – I have never seen anyone as put together and as classy as she. On the flight to attend our wedding, for a fancy Christmas dinner, for a formal event, she steps out looking like a Chanel classic. Earrings to match. Perfect cashmere sweater. Classy, head to toe. When we gush, when we complement her, when we touch the soft fabric and marvel at her beauty, she always replies in the same way “oh this?” and shrugs it off, rolling her eyes, “just something from the Goodwill.”

young mom and me. Photo Credit: Susan Kandel
Mom at Christmas, 2016, Cambridge, MA

“I’ll wait in the car”

My dad was a good sport. He always picked me up from swim practice. He always drove me to the mall. For life in suburbia, parental quality was measured in a parent’s willingness to get in the car and pick up their kids. My dad was always there.

He would bring a book, usually something on Japanese history or Buddhist philosophy. No matter what we were doing, he’d say, “okay, I’ll wait in the car.” Sometimes he’d be sitting there for hours, he claimed. When he forgot his book, he’d admonish himself, shaking his head, “I should have known better” as I finished a three hour goodbye to my latest best friend at swim practice.

In typical dad fashion, he also saw it as his responsibility to fill all our vehicles with gas. As a collector of old beat up cars and with two daughters who “knew” how to drive, he would often spend the whole afternoon taking different cars from our driveway to the gas station and back. When he got sick and couldn’t drive anymore on his medicine, it was so important for him to fill the car for us that my sister and I risked our lives in one of the most harrowing journeys to the gas station I think we’ll ever experience. With him behind the wheel and his oxygen tank in the back seat, he pulled out of the driveway straight into a bush, unsuccessfully tried to swipe his grocery store rewards card into the machine, and then forgot his credit card twice at the pump before collapsing back into the car. The drive back was as scary as the drive there.

But we knew how much these things meant to him. He had been doing them all our lives. Even at his most sick, he still wanted to care for us the way he knew how. He still wanted to drive us around. He still wanted to wait in the car.

Cactus Pants

When I was younger, my mom would always buy my sister and me the exact same gifts: matching stuffed animals at first, clothing a little later. We would both get the same dog, or polar bear or stuffed rabbit. For other holidays, we would receive the same Valentines or Easter baskets – the same stuffed dog but with a flower or heart instead of the plaid scarf, depending on the season. Always in two. Always the same.

My mom made Valentine’s Day and Easter two of my favorite holidays when I was young. I loved dressing up in the most flowery frou-frou dress she could find, with a matching ribboned straw hat, and heading to my nana’s looking like an 8-year-old 90s style prom star, with my matching 4-year-old sister as a side kick accessory.

Recently, my mom gave one of our old matching stuffed dogs to my niece. And my niece is joyously carrying out her mom and aunt’s tradition of over-the-top and out-of-the-box fashion choices with red sparkle high heels and her own large collection of tutus she models and changes every day.

When I was young, the frilly matching dresses had their limelight for a good while before I became an angsty tween and started my exposed midriff phase that lasted too long. When the subsequent gift ideas plateaued, my mom adapted. We, as a family, adapted. We all started giving each other the opposite of froofy formal wear: we started gifting matching pajamas instead.

What started as my mom buying these things for my sister and me morphed into us buying them for her. Every Christmas, three new pairs of matching pink cat pajama bottoms would appear under the tree. We’d all head out to our suburban TJMaxx or Marshalls separately, and end up buying nearly the same thing for each other on the other end. Before there was a social media phenomenon of people wearing matching Christmas PJs at home, my mom, my sister and I were wearing, exchanging and switching our nighttime wear constantly for years, surprisingly on trend.

Now, in another country, an entire continent and ocean away from them both (they live in SF) during this crazy pandemic, I am comforted by this memory as I sit in a pair of furry cactus pajama pants I bought for myself and my sister the last time we saw each other, more than a year ago now, in a Marshalls down in New Orleans. I usually buy a cozy pair of socks or lounge pants for her or my mom right before any anticipated visit, and always get the same reaction of joy and excitement that I feel myself when I purchase them. This is what brings us together. This is what keeps us in each other’s thoughts. When I call now, my sister and I are still, almost 30 years later, wearing the exact same outfit on the phone, enjoying our lounge wear in our separate lockdowns, apart but still the same. Always wearing the same.


My husband is using online retail therapy to cope with this pandemic. His purchases are mostly baking, cooking or gardening related. Yesterday, I came downstairs to find a box with a full greenhouse tent for the backyard, waiting to be unpacked.

This week he also decided to buy a number of different seeds: chili peppers and tomatoes primarily.

The tomatoes make me most excited.

When I was young, my dad had a prized tomato garden. It was his passion. He would watch the weather channel religiously to try to anticipate the first frost, always worrying about his crop. Each season, we’d have multiple one gallon buckets full of unripe, green tomatoes crowding our basement in order to protect them from the cold.

With so many plants, my youth was spent eating tomatoes like apples, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had an endless supply, given to neighbors, friends and the occasional passerby.

His question to his tomatoes and to their consumers: “are they rich and full?” This was a phrase in my family for years, for anything, really, that was produce related. Whenever we’d bite into a grape or a kiwi or an orange slice. “Is it rich and full?” I am still not even sure what it means.

Juicy, ripe, healthy looking, I suppose. My dad had an eye for these things. He was easily critical of other people’s vegetable gardens – if it was a bad year, if the plants needed stakes, if they didn’t have enough water, what kind of flowers were seasonal vs. annual, or too weak for the New England climate.

When we went for walks, he’d point out expensive shrubs, knowing quickly how much a garden cost based on what was inside.

These things never mattered to me much when I was young. I took it all for granted. My dad’s endless encyclopedic knowledge of gardening. But now I wish I knew more. I wish I knew the names of certain plants, or what can flourish where. There is something beautiful about tending to something while it grows.

That’s why I was so happy when, today, in a long list of tomatoes from all over the world, in different colors and sizes, I correctly selected the picture of the ones I knew best. The ones I wanted most for our new greenhouse. “Native to North America.” The ones from his garden. The ones able to grow rich and full.

The OG Dutch Cat – Part Two

There was never a lap that Piet didn’t like. If a human existed in the house, he would find that person and cuddle.

When we first brought Piet home, he had severe separation anxiety. Night after night for the first few weeks, he would spend endless hours meowing and throwing his little kitty body against the door to get to us from his place in the living room.

As time passed, he realized we weren’t going anywhere, that we loved him, and that he was ours. More so perhaps, we were his.

He had a seat at the dinner table that he’d hop onto whenever we were there, putting his little chin on the table and watching us talk or eat or read. When a guest sat in his chair, he sat on their lap. He was present for every meal.

At night, if I was feeling sad, he would come over and head butt my hand for a pet, nestling next to me on the couch. Once, with severe neck pain, he lay in bed with me for hours and watched me look at the ceiling.

Out of our house, Piet was the veteran, the knowledgeable, wise, one-eyed grandpa to the cats in our neighborhood, reigning over the courtyard with fairness and ease.

When a new French cat moved in to disrupt the peace, he quickly showed him who was boss.

But otherwise, he supervised his neighborhood peacefully, patrolling during the day and respectfully sniffing strangers as they passed on our quiet street in the center of town.

No one knew Piet’s age, but he was older than he appeared, and older than the shelter predicted, our vet told us later. Thinking back, I knew that. He had the lazy self-assuredness that was far greater than his younger peers. He had nothing to prove. He simply wanted to give and receive love.

I suppose that’s why it was so devastating when Piet got sick. What started as a surgery to remove some teeth ended as a poor recovery leading to his end.

He stopped eating. We put him on dialysis for his kidneys. He got better. He got worse. We cried. Eventually, we had to put him down.

Our last night together, we let him sleep in our bed with us, something he had always wanted. I was startled at how quiet and cold he was. I wanted to keep him warm. All he wanted was to be close to us. I let him sleep on my pillow, my head on the mattress, looking up at him.

People say cats aren’t as affectionate as dogs, but I disagree. I know Piet cared for us. I know he was grateful to spend the last couple years of his life cuddling on our couch. And we were grateful for him. He brought a reminder everyday of something important: the ability to love unconditionally.

The OG Dutch Cat – Part One

An article recently reminded me of something I already suspected: there are no stray dogs anymore here in the Netherlands.

For my husband and me, coming from NYC, the lack of Dutch stray animals perplexed us. We had moved from a Manhattan studio apartment where we stuffed ourselves, our bed, a desk, and two large foster cats + all their equipment into a tiny space and happily called it home. When we moved to The Netherlands and proclaimed that we were finally ready to take on our very own perma-cat (permanent instead of foster), we were confused when the shelter told us our one-bedroom apartment with a courtyard was too small for adoption. We are the ideal cat parents. We are the messiahs of the pet world. My husband once offered to foster a cat with explosive diarrhea. (Another story for another day!) We raised five kittens in our bathroom by hand. (That’s not true; their cat mom raised them, but we were there!) Why was our cat adoption paperwork rejected? Weren’t we the ideal candidates?

Not in the Netherlands. The cats here require a certain amount of square meters. A mansion, if you will. And we didn’t make the cut.

We would not be deterred, however. We went to our local animal shelter anyway, and the woman told us that perhaps there was one cat she’d consider we take. The cat was my namesake, after all: Tori (spelled wrong, according to me), and she was “getting used to people”.

For all intents and purposes, coming from a lover of felines, Tori was feral. When we went to visit her, she was perched on top of a cupboard hissing at everyone down below. The shelter owner said that after months in that one room, she was getting a little better at people petting her with a long stick. She only tried to maul the stick for a little while before allowing it to touch her momentarily.

We told the woman we didn’t think this was a match.

For weeks after, we scoured different shelter websites as hopeful cat parents, looking for our new love. During kitten season, we went to a shelter a couple hours away, only to realize we had missed the rush and all the cats were gone. The line out the door had started before the building opened, and the cats had all been accounted for quickly thereafter.

It wasn’t until months later that we finally got an opening, a competitive edge in this cut-throat cat adoption game: a code red storm was passing through. When others stayed inside to shelter from the fallen trees and horizontal wind, we biked our way through hurricane conditions to the final shelters on our list.

It was there, drenched wet and exhausted, that we first met the kitty who would later become our first and then favorite feline friend: a one-eyed ginger cat named Piet Piraat (Pirate Pete).

It was love at first sight, despite him being less able to see. And the start of a romance for Part Two.