A month away — pleasure, leisure, lessons learned…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Done.

A month away from home, from work, from normal life — I will very much miss Europe and my friends there.

It’s not just being away from the tedium of home life or a long break from the grinding pace of work, but savoring a culture that more deeply values the things I care most about — not money or work or power, but food, beauty, intelligence, conversation, friends and family.

 

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I need to flee the United States a few times a year; a native Canadian who moved to the U.S. in 1989,  I’m burned out on its stalled and vicious partisan politics, growing income inequality and fervent attention to pop culture.

One of the reasons I’ve stayed freelance — which costs me income but allows me time — is to take as much time off as my budget allows. The world is too large and filled with adventures for me to sit still in one place for very long; some places I’m eager to get to in the next few years include Morocco, Turkey and Greece. (I’ve been to 39 countries so far.)

Why so long a break?

My most precious belonging!
My most precious belonging!

We were loaned a free Paris apartment for two weeks, which made it affordable given the cost of Christmas-boosted airfares. I stayed with friends in London for the next week, so the only housing cost was $1,200 for the rental of a large studio apartment for my final 8 nights; (hotels on the same street are charging about $190/night for a small single room, about $1,400/week.)

Plus meals, shopping, trainfare to/from London, transfers, taxis/subway.

I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic in five years on my last visit to Paris where, as we did here, we had rented an apartment, also on the Ile St. Louis, the small, quiet island in the middle of the Seine, and settled in for two weeks.

My definition of luxury is not owning a shiny new car or huge house, (and have never owned either one), but the time to really get to know another place for a while.

To sloooooooooow down and savor where I am.

I ate lunch in a favorite restaurant across the street from our 2009 apartment and bought a dress from a favorite shop in the Marais.

Les Fous de L'Ile. Allez-y!
Les Fous de L’Ile. Allez-y!

It’s a luxury to reconnect with the familiar in a foreign country.

In my final week in Paris, I dithered…should I rush around seeing museums, shop the sales and/or sleep late and lounge around my rental apartment, which is large and comfortable? (I did all of them.)

I also joined in the Unity March, the largest in France’s history, thrilled that I was here for it.

One very powerful memory I’m bringing home to New York?

How vivid and present, even today in 2015,  war still is in Paris.

Every street, it seems, has a plaque — often with a bunch of flowers attached to it — honoring Resistance heroes of WWII, their bravery now many decades past. Many schools, heartbreakingly, have a large plaque by their front door numbering how many of their children were taken away by the Nazis.

And there are at least four concurrent exhibitions in Paris devoted to aspects of WWII and WWI, from the Liberation of Paris (an astounding show) to one exploring collaboration with the Nazis. Having watched a 31-minute film there, from 1944, of the liberation, I’ll never again see Paris the same way — its lovely streets then filled with dead bodies and burning tanks, barricaded with trees and sewer gratings, women being dragged into the street for public shaving of their heads for collaborating with the Nazis.

A few things I’ve realized in my time away:

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Social capital can replace financial capital

Jose and I do OK for New York, but so much of it disappears in taxes, retirement savings and life in a costly place. So we’re very fortunate to have generous friends around the world who lend us and/or welcome us into their homes. I spent a week with Cadence and Jeff in London in their flat, whose total square footage is about 300 sf, the size of our living room and dining room at home. I don’t know how we managed it, but we did! While I’ve been here, Jose welcomed our young friend from Chicago, Alex, for a week and introduced him to several important new mentors and our friend Molly, from Arizona, has spent many happy nights on our sofa.

What goes around comes around, even globally!

Travel can be tiring

Exploring big, busy cities on a budget, (i.e. taxis are a rare treat), means hours of walking and many subway stairs. I get tired and dehydrated and needed a coffee or a glass of wine to just rest.

Rue des Archives
Rue des Archives

You also have to pay attention to danger, from subway pickpockets to forgetting your address or house entry code.

Sept. 18, 2011. Jose and I tie the knot!
Sept. 18, 2011. Jose and I tie the knot!

— I missed my husband!

My best friend. My confidant. My sweetie. He was here for a week. I’ve missed his company and laughter terribly and we Skyped a few times.

— Routines serve a useful purpose

At home in New York, I normally take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday morning and go for an hour’s brisk walk in the woods with my friend Pam on Wednesday mornings. Every weekend I read three newspapers, in print. I enjoy my little routines; as a full-time freelancer with no regular schedule, they ground me.

— But it felt so good to get away from them

I usually watch the nightly news at 6:30, but also hate how U.S.-centric and sentimental it is. In my time away, my only news sources were Twitter and the occasional newspaper — I didn’t turn on the TV once, didn’t miss it a bit and read three non-fiction books instead.

I’ve also loved spending 90% of my time in the real world and not glued to social media on the computer. I really loved not driving a car for an entire month; we live in the suburbs and I spend my NY life behind the wheel, tracking the price of gas. Tedious! A city vacation meant lots of walking, buses, trains and cabs. Healthier and much more fun.

— Less is plenty

I wore the same few clothes for a month, doing laundry once a week and it was eye-opening to see how little I really need.

Same for food. I bought fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, soup and yogurt; that plus a fresh baguette every two days supplied my cheap/delicious breakfasts and light suppers at home.

— Experiences beat stuff

— riding the Ferris wheel high above Les Tuileries on a warm and sunny Christmas Day in Paris

— helping to make French history by joining the Unity March on January 11, the largest gathering of Parisians (and others beyond the city) since WWII. Here’s my blog post about it, if you missed it.

— staying in a 15th century country inn in England, eating short ribs by the fire

— meeting a snappy young British journo I follow on Twitter who took me to a secret members-only club above a Soho restaurant. The room was dim, had two small dogs snoozing in lined wooden boxes and fragrant hyacinths on every table. Heaven!

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— a cup of tea at the Ritz in London and the (!) $30 cocktails Cadence, Jeff and I shared in its spectacular Art Deco bar. Worth it!

— my spendy New Year’s Eve, dinner at Paul Bert 6 with a good bottle of red wine. Here’s the blog post by Juliet, with photos, of our evening together.

— spending a cold gray Sunday afternoon in a hammam, a Paris spa with a Middle Eastern flavor

— We are who we are, no matter where in the world our body is

At home, I need a lot of sleep, minimally 8 to 10 hours a night. Just because there are a gazillion things to do and see while visiting Europe, I didn’t force myself to do asmuchashumanlypossible. I now have a painful arthritic left knee, so by day’s end I really needed to rest.

My final week in Paris I took long, lazy mornings listening to music, reading, eating breakfast, then headed out around noon for a big French lunch, (cheaper than dinner), errands and explorations.

— Cosy beats grand/ambitious, at least some of the time

It was so nice to come “home” to our rented flats and settle in for the evening with a glass of wine and my new favorite radio station, TSFjazz; check it out online! Our Christmas dinner was roast chicken at home at the kitchen table and it was perfect. On a rainy, windy day in Paris, I was almost at the museum door, but was just exhausted. I said the hell with it, cabbed home and instead of being a dutiful/weary tourist took a nap and did laundry. Much happier choice!

— Solitude is relaxing

My life in New York requires chasing people down for work and/or payment, teaching two college classes, maintaining a happy marriage — and paying close attention to everyone’s emotional state. Whew! Raised as an only child, I savor quiet time alone, at home or out in the world exploring on my own. It recharges me.

My independence is a muscle. It needs exercise!

— But social media has been a godsend

So many blogging blind dates!

In Paris, Mallory, Catherine and Juliet — all followers of this blog, once virtual strangers now friends — invited me to meet; Catherine en francais. I also met Gillian and Ruth, fellow American writers my age. In London, I met Josh and in Paris my oldest friend from my Toronto childhood, also visiting. I had a busier social life while alone overseas than I ever do at home.

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I’m increasingly ready to leave the U.S. and its brutally industrial work culture

One of my hosts’s many books is “La Seduction”, by New York Times journalist Elaine Sciolino, who sums up my feelings well:

“The French are proud masters of le plaisir; [pleasure], for their own gratification and as a useful tool to seduce others. They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on. They give themselves permission to fulfill a need for pleasure and and leisure that America’s hard-working, supercapitalist, abstinent culture often does not allow.”

I’ve come to loathe Americans’ fetish for “productivity” and self-denial. Pleasure and leisure are seen there with the same sort of suspicion as a felony offense. I hate that and always have.

Jose and I hope to retire to France, even part-time. Every visit back there confirms why…and I loved this recent post by Chelsea Fuss, a stylist from Portland, Oregon who sold all her things and has been on the road ever since, alone.

A longtime follower of Broadside, photographer Charlene Winfred, is doing the same thing.

An excerpt from Fuss’ terrific blog, {frolic!}:

Does your trip have a point? It seems like you are aimlessly wandering around?

Seeing the world enlightens me. This trip was about facing the nagging wanderlust that had been bugging me for years and getting back to gardening, hence the farm stays. I have a blurry picture of what it is I want to do at the end of this and am figuring it out along the way. I’ve told myself it’s ok not to be overly ambitious right now. I keep busy with work, creative projects, and soaking up my environment but it’s definitely a slower pace than I lived at home and I think that’s ok for me right now. Slowly but surely this vision is getting clearer. I have days when I feel like I am going backwards and I should be climbing the career ladder, but that’s usually when I am comparing myself to other people. For me, this is right, right now.

41 thoughts on “A month away — pleasure, leisure, lessons learned…

  1. This was such a lovely post. It makes me miss Europe dearly, and while I have never been to France I did love being in London and Berlin. For me, getting away is going to Africa. I go at least four times a year and I love it. Everything slows down and I can catch my breath. It’s seems so ridiculous that I have to go to another continent to really soak up that feeling, but I do. Welcome home! I’ve loved following your journey.

  2. I’ve been to some of those museums and exhibitions. Some are amazing, some not so much. But you can learn a lot from them, I find. God, I miss Europe! What I wouldn’t give to go back to London, Paris, and Berlin, plus a few other places, and explore at my leisure.

  3. themodernidiot

    hell yeah the pleasures of Paris! americans are like the protestants of old: work work work (until you get to parliament anyway) and bad fashion

  4. I have not and will not likely be able to afford travelling in Europe as have you, and it is marvelous that you have had these opportunities. But I have to wonder if it is the East coast that has soured you on the U.S. or perhaps you really have just not been comfortable here. I live on the West coast and I have or happliy create good amounts of time–without much money as a person over 60–to enjoy all sorts of nature adventures, the arts, shopping at a variety of interesting places, and get together with friends and family for tea and scones to just talk and savor the moments. My spouse and I enjoy making art and music, read good books, converse about many things. We find ways to travel a bit without the budget you intimate you enjoyed going to Europe. I have family members who are truly world travellers and I sometimes envy them their ability to explore so many cultures but enjoy it all vicariously via their frequent sharing.
    Perhaps Europe simply suits you better–there is certainly no harm in that, as we all have our particular vibration, so to speak. Perhaps if I get there one day I will share some of your responses. But until then I am glad to live in the U.S. (despite being discontent with some of our socioeconomic plights and political biases), where hard work is valued, yes, but so are the gathering of friends and family, a happily shared table, a variety of cultural events and nature and outdoor activities which are well loved..at least where I have lived!
    I do always enjoy your writing, Caitlin! Cheers!

    1. I hear you!

      I absolutely agree with you that there are places where one can thrive more easily and affordably in the U.S. than the pricey and competitive suburbs of NYC.

      I chose it in 1989 with my then-husband (best for both of our work) and stayed for my 2nd husband’s job at the NYT. But, I have to say, I do like NY and am never unhappy to come home, quite the opposite. Having said that, I still just don’t fit in here very well and that is lonely. So it’s the ever-challenging mix of finding a place to thrive: climate, friends, political/religious views (i.e. acceptance and excitement for diversity), affordable quality housing (tough here), cultural amenities, nature… I tend to romanticize Paris (and know that) as it very much lacks green space. Where we live now is the by far the prettiest spot of my life and I savor every morning our river view and ready access to gorgeous long walks in nature.

      NY is a place you come to (I did and did) to make your name professionally. I have and am glad of that. But it comes at a cost, too. I wish I knew more people like you here….I find people here obsessed with getting and keeping work/money/status and it’s boring as hell. I rarely find people with whom I can discuss art or design…I had a conversation in Paris with a gay couple in which we easily referenced the FT’s gardening columnist, for one thing; they are from Monterey, CA and live half the year in Paris. In NY, there are surely many people who are passionate about the same things as I am. I have yet to find many of them, despite decades of attending social and professional events. For which I blame myself, but am weary of that, too.

      It is deceptive to move from Canada to the U.S. as you think “I”m not a foreigner.” But you are. In France I know I’m a foreigner, so maybe all of that bothers me less.

      1. Thank you for your congenial and considered response. I do have to remember you were not born and raised here (this IS my home, afterall…). And I have forever desired to understand the Canadian experience both in his/her homeland and here; you enlighten me a bit on this. I feel too distant from Canada when I don’t want to be and don’t know how to resolve this dilema. (Ideas?) I travel there for vacation, appreciate the countryside and cities I’ve visited and feel comfortable, but only to an extent. Fortunately for you, life in NYC has been grand for your career and heart if not socially in an more intimate way–how wonderful. Still, I think there are many educated (even middle class) folks out here who adore the arts and engage in much stimulating conversation. For that I am grateful. I also have a family who appreciates both of the aforementioned. But I, too, am always in search of more like-minded souls. Perhaps that is just part of the business of being human–we seek and find, are lonely and isolated then seek again…Thanks goodness for the written word and other creative endeavors/art forms that can connect us across the globe!

      2. Interesting question…how to better understand Canadians? How to answer that intelligently?

        The simplest answer (which is stupidly simple) is that Canadians are generally motivated/governed by very different values than Americans — and you may be feeling that when you (Thanks!) visit my home and native land. We/they care about others — hence national free health care for all, indigent, unemployed, freelance, etc. Health care there, as some American bumper stickers say, is a right not a privilege.

        We also have very affordable and excellent universities — $5K a year, not $50K, again a policy-backed declaration that we believe in a more level playing field, not the elbow-in-the-eye, dog-eat-dog capitalism that increasingly dominates American policymaking and behavior.

        Canadians tend to be more emotionally private and reserved (a quality I miss but which may make you feel they are more elusive than REAL friendly Americans.) We’re not socialized to be REAL friendly and find that naive, even annoying, from Americans….

        They are also highly risk-averse and hate conflict. Yet they are 100% cool with all sorts of civil rights that STILL (?!) freak out millions of Americans — like gay marriage (yawn) and common-law marriage that protects women’s rights…readier access to abortion and reproductive rights…

        It is a huge country geographically but small professionally and socially so people are less likely to assume they can behave badly and just move 1000 miles away and start over. We all know the same 100 people! (if you move in decently educated circles.) So that also affects professional and social relationships.

        Does any of this make sense? 🙂

      3. Not sure if it makes sense as I am not Canadian…and always interesting to hear your thoughts and experiences. Sounds like the “perfect” country…which may or may not be a prejudiced viewpoint! I believe every country/culture has its strengths–and we often do not understand each other very well so hearing your thoughts is valuable, though it feels sad to me that you don’t care for much of the USA’s myroad offerings. It sounds like we are more open to Canada (with all its quirks). Yu have to at least admit it has been beneficial to your career to live in NYC and to meet who you have met–including your gifted husband!–and that you continue to benefit. Though I do not agree with all your negative opinions about my homeland, I still enjoy your writing and will keep open the dialogue. Have a truly good week-end out there on the frosty East coast.

      4. I don’t regret coming to NY, as I have managed to achieve many of the professional goals I hoped to in coming here. But I would not say NYC was “beneficial” for/to me. I would say that my relentless drive and determination has made it so….No one has handed me a thing here. I have had to fight very very hard for almost all of it. Because I did not obtain any formal education here (and NYC is insanely attached to Ivy League credentials), I have not had the benefit of that (and it is very real) or the sort of easy social capital I had at 18 in Canada. Barriers here are higher than some might imagine.

        I enjoy the gorgeous landscapes of the U.S., from Vermont to Arizona; I went by train from Seattle to NY so have seen much of it that way. I do value an open business culture and a willingness to take risks that is much less appealing to Canadians and to many Europeans. But I am appalled by the right-wing bullshit, the endless oppression of women’s rights and the political sclerosis — you know that I am hardly alone in this POV! Congress has its lowest approval rating EVER right now.

        🙂

  5. I really enjoyed reading this, it sounds as if you had a great time 🙂 The Ile Saint-Louis is so beautiful, I can imagine that staying there was wonderful. Your note on how Americans prioritise productivity rings a bell with me as a new arrival here – American friends seem completely bemused as to how and why I travel so much, and are surprised about how many paid holidays workers have in the UK. I don’t think it’s an attitude I will ever get used to!

    1. I bet!

      I’ve been thinking of you and wondering how tri-state life and American values are hitting you. I’ve been here since 1989 and will never accept or agree with a mindset that always privileges work/productivity (purely capitalist values!) over a life well lived and thoroughly enjoyed — through plenty of time OFF.

      My belief is that hard work is well worth doing, but without a wider understanding of/interest in the world at large, it’s a pretty provincial POV. I would not trade a penny of my money spent on travel, as I suspect you would not either!

      Hoping we’ll meet soon face to face! 🙂

      1. I completely agree with you. It’s definitely a bit of a cultural learning curve here. I’m getting married next week (!!), but after that things will be a lot less hectic and I would love to meet up for coffee 🙂

  6. Thank you for this wonderful post. I lived overseas for over 8 years. When I came back to the States in 2012, I realize how much I love travel, etc. I have lived vicariously through this post. Love hearing travel stories. Did you use any particular website to rent that studio apartment in Paris? Just curious. Travel is coming up for us the end of 2015 again.

  7. I loved reading your posts about your travels in Paris and London. And I smiled when I saw your photo of the coins with the caption that they were barely enough to buy a coffee. 🙂 I know — British money has a lot of different coins! 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p etc…. I was talking with a French girl at university the other day and she pointed out how illogical it is that the 5 pence coin is smaller in size than the 1p and 2p, even though it’s worth more. I’d never thought of that before. I love talking to people who aren’t native to the UK, as it often makes me see things in different ways.

      1. Yes, London prices can be extortionate! And I wouldn’t say they are representative of the rest of England – the south is generally more expensive than the north. In my English city, I pay approx. £2.25 ($3.37) for a cappuccino, but I’d expect to pay more in the capital.

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