I only “knew” her from her Facebook posts and blog, but we had a great time. I later hired and paid her to coach me on how to better use social media for work, which she teaches at my alma mater, the University of Toronto.
This trip — most of it solo through seven European cities and six countries — has also finally given me a chance to meet some people I’ve only known through social media.
Several years ago, I started reading Small Dog Syndrome, intrigued by the worldly young woman who wrote it. We began by reading one another’s blogs, worked together (virtually) for a year, and finally met face to face only in January 2015 when I stepped off the Eurostar from Paris.
We sat and talked for so long at the train station her worried husband called to see if we were OK. We were indeed!
They generously hosted me — having just met — for a week(!) in their teeny London flat, and this month I was able to return the favor by hosting them for several nights at the Paris apartment we rented this trip.
It’s been a huge pleasure to get to know them both.
Now in Berlin, I’ve met three more social media pals, all of whom I’ve gotten to know through their blogs, some private emails and weekly Twitterchats focused on travel, like #trlt, #culturetrav and #travelskills.
I met Kate and her fiance, and we spent the day talking and walking through a flea market and through Tiergarten, one of Berlin’s huge and fantastic parks, filled with brown bunnies, lakes with rowboats, beer gardens and lots of benches.
It felt immediately comfortable, as if we weren’t meeting face to face for the first time.
I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.
A few notes, in transit:
The kindness of strangers
It’s an interesting experience, as a generally competent and independent adult, to be vulnerable, to need other people to pay attention to me when I need it — like when I got on the wrong train in Frankfurt and, re-directed by a kindly stranger, quickly de-trained.
When transport and restaurant and shop and hotel staff are helpful, even friendly, it matters so much more than when you’re at home, surrounded by the love of friends and family. I enjoy travel, and am happy to do it alone, but rudeness and indifference can sting without the emotional supports of the familiar.
I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a crowded corner cafe of Berlin’s Ku’damm, a major street, and a spot surely full of tourists like me — when I noticed a police motorbike speeding down the sidewalk opposite.
It was nothing serious, but it could have been.
This trip, I’m spending more time than ever before paying attention to my surroundings and how the people around me are behaving. Without my protective, savvy husband — (a former White House Press corps photographer who spent eight years watching the Secret Service protect the President and his family) — it’s all up to me.
Situational awareness matters now.
The humility of needing translation
I speak French, so Paris was easy. I don’t speak a word of German, (or Hungarian or Croatian or Italian.) Nor do I use apps or carry a pocket dictionary. It is humbling to rely on others’ knowledge, and their willingness to use it to help me.
I was at a gym here in Berlin trying to explain something, when a young man, clearly on his way to the office, stepped in: “Do you need help translating?”
I did. And was so grateful!
People may share tables here, and expect to do so. North Americans are more accustomed to lot of physical room, in public and in private.
I love this crazy painting in my Berlin hotel, lobby, Hotel Savoy
Your memory isn’t my memory
Everyone has their favorite (or not!) memories of the places they’ve been and I’m constantly told to Do this! See that! by well-meaning friends.
But your memory of each place is shaped, as mine are, by many variables: who you were with, how old you were, your budget and tastes, the time of day and year, the weather, even the strength of your currency, in that moment.
We also may enjoy wholly different things!
I like to wander. I’m just not a box-ticking type of tourist, rushing to every must-see or trying every must-do.
One of my loveliest afternoons happened by walking a side street, slowly, and discovering one of Germany’s major auction houses, housed in a gorgeous architect-designed building from the late 1800s. I had a great chat with the woman at their front desk, a former Lufthansa flight attendant who got married — in all places — on Staten Island, New York.
That’s not an experience I could have planned, nor offered by any blog or guidebook.
Sitting still is key
Travel is, for all its many pleasures, tiring. Your feet get sore and tired from walking. Your arms and shoulders get weary from dragging a backpack or suitcase. You get hungry and thirsty.
You need to think, to make notes, to just stare into the sky for a while.
You have chosen to stop working — and also just need to rest.
Most of my favorite memories are of sitting still for a while, even an hour at a time (!), watching the light shift and the people walking by, possibly sipping a pot of tea or a prosecco.
There’s never enough champagne!
Taking photos is my greatest joy
I started my career as a photographer, so I love finding images to treasure and frame for our home. My husband gave me a gorgeous little Leica for my birthday and I’m making very good use of it!
Everything is visually interesting to me: light, shadows, foliage, the patterns on a bike or a dress.
I’m fascinated by how different my hotel’s street in Berlin — Fasanenstrasse — looks at all hours — the sky is light at 3:45 a.m. (!) and at 7:10 a.m. I suddenly noticed sharp sunlight briefly illuminating a fantastic stone carving in a doorway.
Routine still matters
I found a gym in Berlin, took a spin class, lifted weights — and sweated happily. At home in New York, I’m at the gym two to three times every week and I miss it. I need to stay in shape.
Routine — although deadening when never broken — is also a little soothing when everything else around you is new.
That little white bear in the very back? He’s along for the ride!
So does comfort
Yes, I travel with a very old, very small, very beloved stuffed bear.
And I’m fine with that.
Acquisition versus disposal
I rarely shop for anything at home beyond gas and groceries, and find much of what I really crave too expensive — and that which I can easily afford unappealing.
So I love to shop when I travel.
But I offload as I go; every post office sells stiff cardboard boxes and plastic packing. I spent 38 euros ($42) this week in Berlin to mail three packages home, things I do want later but don’t need to want to drag around at the moment.
Even some shoe soles are stylish! A brand called Freelance
The second you arrive in Paris — unless you’re already stylish, small and thin — you can feel like a Stegosaurus among orchids.
It’s a cliche but a true one — French men and women often dress, and design their interiors — with a terrific sense of style, and one I find endlessly interesting and inspiring.
French clothing colors are quite different from those offered in North America, especially in the U.S., where garish primaries and brilliant pinks and turquoises predominate, especially in summer.
A French red is a soft tomato-red, not a cold blue-red, their orange slightly dusty, their yellow a soft mustard. Green is a deep emerald or teal, or a soft, pale mint, maybe even a strong chartreuse. You’ll find many more neutrals — gray, cream, beige — than in the U.S. Also, lots of great browns and rust tones, like the rich russet red of cinnamon and a lovely pale peach, the color of ballet pointe shoes.
On the streets, (where in New York you see a lot of black), you’ll see instead a dozen shades of blue.
I love their combinations, in scarves, shoes, clothing and interior fabrics: mustard/gray; navy blue/soft pink; red/gray; olive/burgundy. Clothing is often displayed by color, making it easier to find what you want, or to match outfits.
Much less popular, in general. Men and women both wear prints, but usually on a scarf or a very small-scale design shirt or blouse.
You might not be a scarf person — but men and women of all ages here wear fantastic scarves year-round, whether of wool, cotton, linen or silk. Most are long and narrow, like a muffler, and add a note of stylish confidence. Incredible selection everywhere, and at all price points.
Even grocery carts are chic!
Since so many American women are large — the average U.S. women’s size being a 14, (maybe a size 6 to 8 in Paris) — almost everything for sale in the States hits below the hip to disguise bulk.
Not in Paris! T’s, jackets and blouses are all cropped shorter. French armholes are also cut higher and closer to the armpit, with narrower sleeves, making for a much cleaner line, but also challenging-impossible for those with larger upper arms. Even a size Large to Extra Large can be a lot smaller than you need.
Tall men with broad shoulders may find French clothing less accommodating as well.
I have seen larger sizes for women, but at high price points — usually $200-400 for a stylish blouse or dress, found in a few indie boutiques.
Fit matters here. You won’t see baggy-assed trousers or pleated khakis on men or women, nor pants that need shortening. Attention to detail is a key element of how Frenchmen and women present themselves in public.
Available in every conceivable color and material — from black raffia to pale pink iridescent patent leather to metallic green kidskin with a parrot on top. A jazz shoe — soft-soled, laced — is a perennial favorite, in all colors and finishes, as are loafers. You won’t see many high heels, impractical on cobbled streets.
No matter how simple her outfit, a stylish French woman chooses an interesting shoe.
There are lots of great choices for men, with a flat-soled leather or or suede boot a popular option. The Marais, long a gay neighborhood, offers fantastic options for men, and BHV Homme is an entire department store just for men.
So many bags! While some tourists drop thousands on a Big Name Designer bag like Chanel or Hermes, there are many other stylish and less-expensive options, whether a classic French maker like Lancel, Le Tanneur or Longchamps to something more fun and funky.
A great cut and lively color are de rigueur.
I lovelovelove shopping for our home here; on this trip I bought everything from napkins to bathmats to a throw for the bed, even a comforter.
I find the colors and textures so alluring, with bed linens — sometimes made of linen — offered in every color of the rainbow. If you love beautiful objects and home goods, set aside time to browse department stores BHV and (higher-end) Le Bon Marché.
Small, light packable items like salt and pepper grinders, aprons, napkins and small trays make gorgeous gifts and souvenirs.
Both of these stores have excellent cafés and if you spend more than 175 euros in one day, be sure to claim your détaxe — the 12% value-added-tax — at the store’s designated desk.You must take your passport.
For those with the budget and enough time, ($150/meter and up), you can also visit the showrooms of the Rue du Mail (as I did), a street lined with high-end interior fabric for sale, like Pierre Frey, and order some for your home. They need at least three or four days’ notice, (not including a weekend) and it allows you to bypass the annoying American gatekeeper system, where you can only buy such fabrics through a designer.
Every time I visit Paris, I stop in, and am still wearing and loving several garments I bought there many years ago — and I’m a size 12 to 14, so you don’t have to be tiny. Great selection of shoes, scarves, dresses and blouses. In June, sales start and her lovely winter coats were half-off for about $200.
It’s huge! A terrific cafe sits on the top floor, offering splendid views of the surrounding area. You’ll find clothing, shoes, home goods, luggage, make-up and perfume. Check out their throw pillows and comforters; (you can always mail them home.) Their stationery and crafts section is amazing — with lots of very good art supplies.
This high-end department store, founded in 1838 in a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood, offers a very beautiful physical space to shop in — spacious and full of natural light. Lovely tea room and an amazing food hall!
On the Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, one of three very good paper stores all beside one another. Paper for writing letters, framing, lampshades or wrapping; also notebooks and gorgeous cardboard folders.
This chain of stores is a must if you like scarves as much as I do, in silk, cotton and wool. Their crinkled one-color scarves are well-priced at about $20, and adding one or several to your outfit, men and women, adds a pop of Parisian panache.
It’s 2.5 years since I was last here, in the depths of winter.
My husband Jose and I came for my birthday, and three friends joined us that evening, one from her home in London, her partner from visiting his parents in Sweden and a journalism colleague stationed here. Some had never met one another, and I had never met two of them, but it was a terrific evening.
We ate at this gorgeous restaurants in the Marais, Les Chouettes (The Owls.)
I lived in Paris for a year when I was 25, on a journalism fellowship, so the city feels like home to me. I speak French and have been back many times since then, four times in the past decade.
The city is a feast in every way: great food, beautiful colors everywhere — flowers, doors, women’s clothing — millennia of history, gorgeous architecture, reams of culture, tremendous racial and ethnic diversity.
Most visitors spend their time in the 1st through 11th arrondissements — with possible visits to the quieter, chi-chi, residential 16th. (Balzac’s home is there) and the grittier 18th, 19th and 20th. The buses and subways are clean and efficient and many taxi drivers now speak English.
Some photos of our week:
Jose planned a terrific Sunday jazz brunch at La Bellevilloise, a 100+ year-old building that’s been re-purposed into a cultural center in the funky 20th arrondissement (neighborhood), with great views of the city. The buffet style food was delicious, the music Django-esque, and the crowd a mix of all ages, tourists and Parisians.
I recommend it highly; you must make reservations!
The flat we’ve rented, from a journalism colleague of Jose’s, is in a trendy nabe, the Marais, (literally, as it once was, the swamp), an area filled with indie boutiques, bars and restaurants lining its narrow streets, with fantastic names like “the street of bad boys” and “the street of the white coats.”
The view from our flat’s living room
Our rented flat is on the first floor at the end of a tree-filled cul-de-sac, so it’s blessedly silent at night.
My Paris isn’t typical.
I don’t feel compelled to fight the crowds and see all the official sights: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Tuilieries, the Eiffel Tower.
I treat it instead like an old, familiar friend, as one more big city I enjoy.
Some tourists stagger along with pontoons of shopping bags from Chanel and Vuitton and Hermes. Instead, I’ve bought everything here from eyeglasses to bathmats; the colors on offer are so distinctive and these things bring us daily pleasure at home for years afterward.
We have a few favorite restaurants, like this one, Les Fous de L’Ile, on the Ile St, Louis, (where we rented a flat for two previous visits) and love to try new ones.
We tasted two whites and two reds, with matching types of cheese and baguette and water to help us not get too drunk and learned a lot.
Paris has changed, of course, since I’ve been coming here, and five new things I notice this time:
— people jogging in the streets in Spandex and Fitbits, (once unheard of)
— far fewer smokers, more vapers
— so many people speaking excellent English, happily, from cabbies to store clerks and restaurant staff.
— Everyone’s wearing “les baskets” — sneakers — and a good thing, too! This is a city that demands and rewards hours of walking, but ohhhh, your feet will get tired if you don’t wear comfortable and supportive shoes.
— This visit, too, I’m much more aware, all the time, of our surroundings and every possible egress; with terrorism attacks in various European cities, including the massacre here at the club Bataclan, you can’t be stupid and tune out. A policemen was attacked with a hammer outside Notre Dame on Tuesday.
We live in weird and frightening times. I came out of a department store to find a large crowd and a lot of security guards and thought…ohhhhh, shit.But it was only (!?) people waiting for some American actor/celebrity to show up; apparently Tom Cruise has been here filming the latest Mission Impossible.
On a more sober note, one thing you’ll notice here, if you pay attention and look at the doorways of residential buildings, is the number of signs and monuments to the men, women and children who died during the Resistance and in WWII.
I saw this glass monument in the park next to Le Bon Marché, an elegant, high-end department store — steps away from a brightly-lit carousel filled with happy children
It honors two little girls who perished in Nazi death camps and I found it deeply moving,
Arrested by the police of the Vichy (occupation) government, complicit with the Nazi occupiers, more than 11,000 children were deported from France between 1942 and 1944, and assassinated at Auschwitz because they were born Jewish. Several of them lived in Paris, in the 7th arrondissement and among those two “very little ones” who hadn’t even started attending school.
As you pass by, read their name because your memory is their only resting place.
A great joy of summer here is the huge amount of sunlight. Paris is much further north than you might expect — 48.8 degrees north, (the Canadian border with the U.S.) — and the sun isn’t setting right now until 9:45 or later, so there’s a long, lovely dusk.
I’m leaving, starting in Paris with Jose for my birthday, for six weeks in Europe, most of it spent alone and my longest break in 30 years — Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zagreb-Istria-Venice-London.
A few reasons to travel:
Meeting “the other”
Who’s “foreign” and why? What does it even mean to be a foreigner? What’s janteloven and how does it affect Scandinavian behavior? What’s a “bank holiday” and why do people look forward to it? Why do the Dutch keep their windows open and their interiors visible? What part of a Thai person’s body should you never touch?
We each live within a cultural and historical matrix affecting our choices, whether we realize it or not. Shedding that protective shell, even briefly, can be eye-opening — even life-changing.
The Brooklyn Bridge, NYC
Becoming “the other”
Suddenly you’re the fish out of water, whose assumptions and beliefs can seem weird, even rude, where you’re the visitor.
To slooooooow down and pay close attention to where you are
Turn off your phone! Put down that damn selfie-stick!
Instead, bring binoculars, a sketch book, a book to read. Sit on a rocky hilltop or by a waterfall or in an outdoor cafe. Sit still for an hour and be truly present.
Memories are the best souvenir and paying attention creates them.
Learning/testing your resilience and resourcefulness
It’s up to you to: read the map/menu/train station directions/find the hotel or hostel or apartment. It’s up to you to catch the right bus or subway, (a challenge if the language is Arabic or Chinese or Japanese or Cyrillic or Greek!) But the self-confidence it brings transfers nicely once you’re back on familiar soil.
Using/learning another language
Read the local paper or listen to radio and TV. Learn the phrases for “please” and “thank you” and “I need help.” Using the local language, if at all possible, is a basic show of respect, even if you blunder.
Realizing the value of other ways of thinking: political, economic, social, urban planning, healthcare
Americans, especially, have shockingly little knowledge of the world; with a huge Pacific Ocean to the West, the Atlantic to the east, simply getting out of the U.S. can mean a long, expensive flight. Nor are Americans taught much, if anything, about other countries and American exceptionalism can add a layer of potential arrogance and tone-deafness.
Making new friends
Social media and the Internet offers us unprecedented opportunities to make new friends, literally worldwide. Thanks to blogging, my journalism work and Twitterchats, I’ll be meeting up with new and old friends this summer in London, Paris and Berlin, and hope to make a few more along the way.
Americans call it Canadian bacon; we call it peameal!
Exploring new cultures
Through food, music, museums, galleries, architecture, parks and natural wonders. It’s easy to forget how essential other cultures have also been to the foundation of so much Western thought — French, Asian, Greek, Arabic, just to name a few.
Find out what a muffaletta and a pan bagnat have in common!
Gaining a deeper appreciation of history
I once stood in front of the magnificent marble facade of an Italian church with a Chinese friend who asked if we had such things in my country, Canada. No, I said — we didn’t even become a country separate from Great Britain until 1867.
Stand inside the ringing silence of the Grand Canyon or the African savannah or Australia’s Outback….and remember we’re mere blinks within millennia.
The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
Savoring nature’s silent beauty
So much travel is focused, as it should, on the great cities of the world. But there are so many stunning natural sites, from White Sands Monument in New Mexico, (actually silica), to the vast red deserts of Namibia and Morocco, the jungles of Central and South America and Africa, the rugged islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland and the U.S. and Canada…
Trying new activities
No bungee-jumping for me! But I’ve tried street food in Bangkok, chocolate-filled churros in Mexico City, sea-kayaking on Ko Phi Phi, horseback riding through the desert in Arizona. Even if it’s an activity you know, doing it in a wholly different environment is worth trying; I loved playing golf on Cruit Island in strong winds at the ocean’s edge — leaving my cheeks salty with sea-spray.
Looking for travel ideas or inspiration?
There are hundreds of travel blogs; one, written by a young Scottish friend — who met her American husband (of course!) while teaching English in China — is Stories My Suitcase Could Tell.
I also enjoy the sophisticated tips offered by a Canadian living in Paris, here.
It’s a fantastic time to visit Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal.) The Canadian dollar is about 73 cents U.S. and it’s a gorgeous place, with much to see, from Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland (forever on my to-do list) to the spectacular Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island — at the opposite end of my enormous country.
I join weekly travel-focused Twitterchats, like #TRLT, #travelskills and #culturetrav. If you love travel, it’s a terrific way to learn a lot about the world and meet equally passionate fellow travelers.
It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.
Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.
I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.
I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.
No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.
My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.
As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.
She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.
We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.
It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?
I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.
When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.
I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.
Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.
I wonder if I ever will.
My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.
But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.
At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”
The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.
Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!
I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.
Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.
A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.
I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.
How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?
Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?
It’s an annual event that began in 1935 in San Diego — when active servicemen/women aboard Coast Guard, Navy and Marine vessels dock in a city and let us see what their life, and ship, is like. It’s also a reminder that Manhattan is an island, and a working harbor, its western edge lined with piers, (usually hosting gigantic cruise ships.)
It’s so cool each spring to see all the sailors fanning out across Manhattan in their pristine uniforms, some enjoying it for the first time, others on a repeated visit.
But I’d never gone aboard one of the vessels, some of them 600-foot-long warships that have patrolled the world’s most dangerous regions.
This year — a huge thrill for me — I was invited by the Canadian consulate aboard a Canadian ship, the 181-foot HMCS Glace Bay, built in Halifax, for an event to celebrate Canada’s 150th. anniversary.
It was a brutal day of torrential rain, wind and cold, and we stood under a leaky (!) canopy on the gray metal deck. There was lovely finger food and Canadian cider, which helped.
What an impressive crowd!
As you walked up the steep gangplank to board, a crew of white-uniformed officers stood to greet us and, when senior officers arrived, each was piped aboard with a three-tone whistle to alert us all to their presence.
There were generals, their chests ablaze with military honors. There was an FBI cyber-crime expert and the head of intelligence for the NYPD. I chatted with three Navy veterans, one a gunner, and with the aide to a Marine general and to a Canadian MP.
I’d never had the chance to speak to active servicemen; we traded notes on what it’s like to train at Quantico, (as I did some shooting there while researching my first book) and what it’s like to fend off pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
It was deeply humbling to meet all these people whose job it is, whose vocation it is, to serve and protect us. Most of them had been in the service long enough to retire with full pension (after 20 years) but loved it so much they continue in their work.
That was a refreshing thing to hear, in an economy that’s so perilous for so many.
While Americans are more accustomed to seeing their military, and veterans in everyday life, it’s much less visible in Canada, so this really was a rare treat for me.
Not to mention, to my surprise, a celebrity guest who came out, even on his birthday — actor and comedian Mike Myers. He lives here in New York, and moved to the States a year before I did, in 1988, from the same city of origin, Toronto. He showed me photos of his three daughters on his phone and it felt like chatting with an old friend.
That’s actually pretty Canadian.
Maybe because we come from a huge country with a small population (35.8 million) or our national innate reflex to remain modest, low-key and approachable. If he’d been cold or starchy, that would have been more of a shock than his genuine kindness to everyone he met that day.
We spoke for a while; his mom had served in the RCAF, in a role that was a family secret for decades.
I’m usually not a big celebrity geek, but he was so warm and down to earth, just another fellow Canadian proud to come out and celebrate with the rest of us.
After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.
Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.
The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.
While some Americans are convinced that life in the U.S. represents the acme of personal freedom, in practical reality, it often doesn’t. Especially when it comes to finding and keeping paid work.
When you move to the U.S. from a nation with a stronger social safety net, let alone one with powerful unions and laws protecting workers, the lack of government oversight here is shocking.
To name only one example, many states legally only offer “at will” employment: a company can fire you at a second’s notice for no reason at all, with no severance. People who’ve worked for years, or decades, can be out on the street with nothing but six months’ unemployment benefits to get them, they pray, to the next job; New York State benefits are only $1,600 a month, (taxable income), less than the monthly rent for a tiny Manhattan apartment.
Few nations are as obsessed with the words freedom, liberty and justice — yet Americans’ muscular free-market capitalism and high-spending lobby groups who fight daily on Capitol Hill to protect the wealthy and their corporate interests ensure that the playing field is very far from level.
Some of the many challenges facing American workers include:
Virtually no vo-tech training or government/business partnerships to train, or re-train blue-collar workers into well-paid and badly-needed jobs requiring technical skills. Unlike, say, Germany.
The cost of college or training is too often crippling, even out of reach. When a college degree, let alone certifications to work in technical fields, is unattainable, frustrating, dead-end, low-wage service work looms.
If you desperately need affordable health insurance for you and/or your family, you may take and cling to a job you hate, in an industry you wish to flee but can’t — because market-rate health insurance is unavailable or, if unsubsidized by your employer, unaffordable.
The three-chair hair salon I use, its self-employed owner bedeviled by ever-rising rents, Grove St., New York City
Unions are weak, and the smallest they’ve been in American history. With fewer union members than ever, amidst tremendous income inequality, no one is there to fight, collectively, for workers’ rights and needs. When every man has to fight for himself, it pits individuals against one another — a great way to distract us all from how the rich are getting richer and too many of us are getting nowhere.
Non-compete clauses. Here’s a study that found even lower-level employees are getting caught in these snares, sometimes preventing them from finding work in their field for years. Once you leave an employer, having signed one of these, possibly under duress, you’re stuck with skills and experience you can’t use. Fair? Nope.
My husband and I both work full-time freelance, self-employed creatives; he’s a photo editor and I’m a writer and writing coach. We pay $1,800 a month for our health insurance — a sum ensuring healthy profits for the company selling it since we’re both, for now, in excellent health.
It’s the cost of self-employment.
The millions of us now working without a corporate safety net — no paid sick days, no paid vacation days, no family medical leave, no maternity leave — have no public policies to address our specific needs.
We earn less than we probably would in full-time staff jobs, but we’re also free from a tiring and expensive daily rail commute into New York, office dramas or emails at 2:00 a.m. demanding an immediate reply.
Our greatest freedom is deciding who to work with — and whom to avoid.
Since most of us will spend most of our lives working, we hope to find satisfaction in it, when possible, beyond income.
I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed filled with images of a skinny white woman about to marry a billionaire, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.
This week, 242 people died of cholera in Yemen.
Guess which got the most attention?
To many people, now, both are journalism — and possibly of equal value.
Not in my book. I’ve done it for a living since 1978.
I’m really weary of watching fellow reporters fawning endlessly over the wealthy and powerful and their private jets and their super-yachts and their pretty lives.
What good does any of this voyeurism offer to a broken world filled with growing income inequality but a reminder that 99.9% of us will never live a life even vaguely resembling this.
All this, as the Trumps and his billionaire Cabinet take millions from other plutocrats to craft policy to make them all even richer.
If you haven’t yet seen Spotlight — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015 — or All The President’s Men — a 1976 film was nominated in that category but that won four other Oscars — do it. Soon!
Spotlight tells the story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered a sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church, for which they received American journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. The film makes clear, as does ATPM, that real reporting and journalism that can topple powerful, secretive abusers. It takes time, teamwork and tough editors and reporters who simply refuse to give up once they realize the magnitude of the story, even as it looks impossible to get.
In ATPM, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — two real people of the same names — bring down President Richard Nixon after months of piecing together disparate facts and crimes, all the way met with denials and resistance. In one great scene that every reporter can identify with, the editor in chief, Ben Bradlee, says, “I have to really trust my reporters. And I hate trusting anyone.”
In our business, serious mistakes can end a career.
In both films, weary, rumpled reporters do what most journalists actually do — knock on dozens of strangers’ doors (often met with resistance or hostility) looking for sources to speak to them and confirm what they have so far learned or suspected, read through reams of paper documents to find the ones that matter, meet with scared, reluctant witnesses to, or victims of, the crimes, trying to persuade them to put the facts “on the record”, i.e. make them public.
Much of true journalism is slow, tedious, quiet, behind the scenes. It can involve a lot of frustration as you hit dead end after dead end, source after source who refuses to help or to comment, fearful for their job, reputation, even their life.
It’s the opposite of fawning over the wealthy and powerful, which so many now see as “journalism.”
As Trump and his family, and associates, continue to prompt more and deeper investigation, remember that it’s the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post that have brought much of their behaviors to light.