And I’m a total sucker for a beautifully laid table, as the French call it, l’art de la table.
If you’ve ever been to France or Italy especially, you’ve probably enjoyed some gorgeous table settings, even in inexpensive restaurants, thanks to lovely colors in seating, table-tops, floor tile and thoughtful lighting.
The last thing you want is bright glaring overhead light.
The idea is to set a mood, to eat and drink slowly, to enjoy a leisurely meal.
Creating a pretty table isn’t as difficult, scary or expensive as you might assume but it takes a little planning, some digging around for lovely, affordable items and having the confidence to put them all together.
Details matter: iron textiles. Polish metals. Make sure your glassware is clean, not pitted or cracked.
(Those of you with very small children, especially boys, may snicker and leave at this point!)
I’ve been amassing tableware and linens for decades now, and have a good collection of antique china and porcelain, including brown transferware, a sort of poor man’s china popular in the 19th century, which also comes in pink, purple, red and black.
I use mismatched but heavy silver-plate cutlery, found at flea markets, and keep it well-polished.
New tablecloths aren’t always easy to find, and tend to be expensive, but flea markets and consignment shops have plenty of them.
I sometimes just buy a few yards of nice fabric and hem it myself by hand.
Summer breakfast on our New York balcony
For new things, I like: Mothology, Anthropologie, Pottery Barn, Wisteria, Horchow, Crate & Barrel, Ballard Designs.
But I mostly haunt flea markets in every city and have found some great/affordable/quality old things at antiques fairs, consignment shops and inside group antiques malls.
To create a pretty table, for the holidays — or ongoing — here are some things you might want to collect (or rent):
— linen or cotton napkins
— tall candles aka tapers, maybe mixed with unscented votives
— candlesticks or candle-holders, brass, glass, wood, crystal, silver
— a centerpiece of fruit or flowers or vegetation; (no fragrant flowers or arrangements too tall to see over)
— a couple of handsome serving platters and large serving bowls
— a large fabric tablecloth to soften and add color and texture or a long, wide fabric runner
— clean and well-polished cutlery, (what Americans call flatware)
— matching glassware (one for water, one for wine)
— salt and pepper and butter in their own servers/dishes
— a nice jug for serving cold water
No open containers!
Here are some of my own photos, for inspiration:
Restaurant Alexandre, Montreal. Marble table-top ringed with polished brass and cheerful striped bistro chairs
So sorry I couldn’t get these home safely from Venice!
I found the tablecloth in Prince Edward County, Ontario. The cup and saucer are early 19th century, English
A collection of candlesticks — three from Mexico (pewter) and one silver-plate found at a flea market
I’ve been coming to Washington since I was a child, since some cousins lived nearby whose father was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service.
I finally saw the inside of the White House in the year 2000 thanks to my husband, who served eight years in the White House Press Corps as a New York Times photographer — and even got us into the Oval Office for a quick peek.
As usual, I was a very bad tourist so my post won’t extol all the usual sights, but some more personal pleasures.
We started our Saturday at a D.C. legend, the bookstore Politics & Prose, which is a treasure!
We could have spent hundreds of dollars and many hours there; I was researching the competition for a potential book idea and picked up a great present for Jose. I loved dropping my pile at the information desk where they laid atop it a bookmark “Customer Shopping” to make sure they didn’t get re-shelved. The staff was plentiful and helpful, and we picked up Christmas cards as well.
Then I dropped into Goodwood, one of my favorite stores anywhere; picture a smaller, hipper indie version of the American chain Anthropologie, with a mix of well-priced vintage lighting, decorative accessories and furniture with great new clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories.
They had a pair of gggggggorgeous camel colored Prada knee-high boots for $165. If only they’d been my size! I scored a pair of burgundy patterned tights, another present for Jose, a black mohair sweater and a silk jacket. Splurge!
We met old friends for lunch at yet another D.C. institution, Clyde’s, and settled into a deep, comfortable booth to catch up — three photographers and a writer made for plenty of good stories and industry gossip. The service was excellent, the food delicious and the cocktails perfect. The interior, filled with paintings and enormous palm trees and dark wooden blinds filtering the November sunshine, offered a calm and pretty respite from holiday crowds.
I ate lunch, enjoyed a terrific gin & tonic, and wandered.
The best shopping? There are many great options, but check out The Opportunity Shop at the corner of P Street and Wisconsin Avenue, with two floors crammed with consignment goods. Because D.C. is a town full of affluent and well-traveled people, the merch is amazing and prices reasonable — everything from a fuchsia silk Moroccan caftan ($85) to Asian pottery to sterling silver cutlery to Waterford crystal to prints and rugs.
Best of all, the proceeds go to support 5,000 needy children in and around the city.
The area’s side streets are stunning, house after house from the early 1800s; in 1967 the neighborhood was designated a National Historic Landmark district and it was founded in 1751. If you love architecture as much as I do, make time to walk slowly and enjoy!
It’s an annual tradition — my carefully chosen list of holiday gift ideas I hope you’ll find fun and inspiring.
I post it early so you’ll have time to ponder, order and still have things arrive in time.
None of these are sponsored, and in a wide range of prices — and, yes, a few are a big splurge.
While there’s nothing for children, and no tech suggestions, many of my picks are unisex and could be enjoyed by teens to seniors.
All are from online sites and all prices, unless otherwise stated, are in U.S. dollars.
This small ceramic bowl, the palest blue of a summer sky with a gleaming gold glazed interior, is stunning. Perfect as a ring holder or bedside or holding tiny flowers. From Summerill & Bishop, a British website (they ship internationally) with some of the prettiest homewares and linens I’ve ever seen anywhere.
I lovelovelove everything on this American website, Mothology, whose aesthetic is industrial/vintage/rustic but never twee. Roam around for glassware, furniture, lighting, textiles and more. Here’s a vintage-y looking hook — a whale’s tail — perfect for a coat, an apron, a towel.
Also from them, an indigo print cotton napkin, 20 inches square — my trick is to buy two and stitch them together, add a pillow insert and voila! Instant throw cushion.
Ooooooohh, this duvet cover is it! It looks like someone spent years embroidering it in jewel colors, on a charcoal background. It’s from mega-retailer Pottery Barn, (whose duvet covers I’ve used and loved for years.) If the duvet cover is too spendy, the matching pillow shams start at $60.
Don’t forget to give to charity — whether foreign or domestic. So many people need our help! Selfishly, I’m linking here to the Writers’ Emergency Assistance Fund, which can give up to $4,000 within weeks to a qualified, experienced writer of non-fiction or journalism. I sat on their board for years and I know, as a full-time independent writer, how difficult life can become, especially if serious illness or injury strikes, when you have no paid sick days or reliable paycheck.
Also from Hermes, this yummy soap, in their Terre d’Hermes fragrance, which I’ve been wearing and loving since I got it for Christmas last year. It’s an expensive piece of soap, certainly, but sure to last for at least a month or more, so call it $1 a day. “Reminds me of rainy fall days spent at my family’s cottage in the mountains,” said one online reviewer. Technically a male fragrance, but I love it, subtle but layered.
If you don’t know Muji, a Japanese brand established in 1980, you’re missing out: great quality, smart designs and some bits of quirk. If actually getting to New York City is too expensive or complicated, here’s New York in a bag! Six smaller versions of its iconic buildings and six cars, all made of wood. Oh, go on!
For years I’ve been using personalized stationery and love getting and sending it. How about offering a set of personalized notepads? This site, Paper Source, offers dozens of attractive options, a nice choice for that person who already has everything! Here’s a simple design, but there are cockatoos, flowers, succulents and many more.
Few stores still exist in New York City of this vintage — Porto Rico Coffee and Tea has been in business since 1907 — and their fragrant Bleecker Street store is my definition of heaven: a tin ceiling, weathered wooden floorboards, battered huge tins of tea, overflowing sacks of coffee beans, teapots and string bags and everything you could want. They do mail order and here’s their chocolate cinnamon coffee beans, to get you started…
It’s winter. Your skin gets all scaly and dry and a eucalyptus scrub might be just the ticket. From another of my old-time New York City favorite stores, C.O. Bigelow, founded in 1838. They offer a staggering array of lovely products, including obscure/fab European ones like Marvis toothpaste, so make time to roam around their site.
For the more ambitious writers and bloggers in your world — who would really use and appreciate some practical advice, insights and tips to get them closer to their goals, (like more readers, finding an agent, book publication, etc.) — why not offer them one of my webinars ($150 for 90 minutes, one on one at their time of choosing, by phone, Skype or in person) or an hour of my coaching, $225/hour with a one-hour minimum?
An award-winning two-time author and career journalist, teaching these skills for decades, I’ve helped many writers worldwide, winning them readers and bylines in outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times.
I’ll close with two of my most beloved books, which could be intriguing to a wide array of readers.
Skyfaring is written by a British Airways 747 pilot, (the iconic aircraft is going out of service), and is full of some of the most beautiful prose about what the world feels and looks like from 35,000 feet long-haul flights. If like me, your giftee loves: travel, airplanes, the sky and wonderful writing, this is a great choice, a New York Times best-seller.
Twyla Tharp is a New York based modern dance choreographer and a ferocious talent. If you work in any kind of creative field, I highly recommend her book The Creative Habit. Like her, it’s smart, practical and no bullshit.
In 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program. The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one’s health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.
I start to feel very ill at ease when I haven’t spent time in nature and in silence there; after two tedious months of physical therapy aimed at loosening and strengthening my arthritic right knee, each session consuming two hours, I was sick to death of only relating to machines and being stuck indoors.
On our trip to Montreal we continued north to Mont Tremblant and spent two days enjoying what was left of the autumn leaf colors and stunningly warm weather.
The area is full of walking and cycling trails so we took one through the woods down to the Diable River where we sat on the rocks and listened to the rushing river. The woods were largely silent except for one nearby blue jay.
I loved the lush moss, peeling birch trees, sun-dappled leaves and ancient stones.
I loved the soothing sound of the river rushing over and around rocks.
I loved watching leaves tumble into the water, only to be swept under and away like little yellow boats.
The day before, I ventured to the edge of the hotel property and found a grove of trees whose thick, twisted, intertwined roots looked like nothing I’d ever seen before anywhere, like something out of a fairy tale.
I sat on them for a while, just being still and present, watching the sun glow lower and lower through the trees. The woods were silent — no chipmunks or squirrels rustling past, no birds squawking to one one another.
It was eerie and disorienting.
But so, so good to be out, once more in nature, as always reminded that humans are just one more species.
Our final morning in Montreal, I insisted we pay a quick visit to one of my old haunts, the enormous market down by the Lachine Canal that sells an astonishing array of produce, meat, cheese, flowers, chocolate, tea, coffee — you name it!
While Montreal has multiple markets, we chose this one and it was a perfect fall day, with people of all ages arriving with babies and dogs.
Because we were traveling and staying in hotels, I didn’t buy much food — a piece of cheese, some apples and bananas, home-made mustard, maple popcorn and some astounding chocolate. The friends we were heading to visit in Ontario are about start building a new home, so a set of chocolate tools (!), like a hammer and saw, seemed like a good house gift.
Of course, this being Quebec, many of the signs are in French, but everyone will speak some English, if not fluently.
Pies: Pumpkin, apple, blueberry, sugar, maple sugar
There are 100000 sorts of things made with maple syrup and Montreal bagels, which are completely different from the doughy ten-ton things New Yorkers love to boast about — these are lighter and chewy and boiled then baked.
Scary meringue ghosts for Halloween!
Canada’s legendary food — poutine — cheese curds and gravy
More than 18,900 people have now signed up to follow Broadside — and I only know a very few of you.
So, to get to know some of you a bit better, here are 20 questions I’d love some of you to answer.
Pick whichever ones suit you, some or all…
Thanks for playing!
I’ll go first!
1. Favorite city/place:Paris
2. What do you see out your bedroom window? Treetops and the Hudson River, facing northwest.
3. How many languages do you speak?English, French and Spanish
4. Where were you born? Vancouver, B.C.
5. Where do you live now?Tarrytown, NY
6. What sort of work do you do?Writer and writing coach
7. What makes you most angry? Arrogance/entitlement
8. Who do you most admire? Those who fight for social justice
9. What’s your blog name and why do you blog? Broadside is a play on words. I like to hear what readers worldwide have to say. It’s a place for me, as a professional writer, to write for pleasure, not income.
10. Dog, cat or other sort of pet person? Dog (although currently dog-less)
11. What are some of your creative outlets? Photography, writing, drawing, cooking, interior design
12. Number of countries visited? (or states or provinces) Forty countries, 38 U.S. states, seven Canadian provinces
13. What did you study at university and why? English literature, French and Spanish, with the goal of becoming a foreign correspondent
14. Deepest regret? Our family’s unresolved estrangements. Never getting a staff job at a place I dreamed of.
15. Unachieved goal(s)?I’d like to publish at least two or three more books.
16. Typical Saturday morning?Coffee, reading The New York Times and Financial Times (in print), listening to favorite radio shows like On The Media, Studio 360, This American Life and The Moth. Spin class.
17. Do you play a musical instrument? Acoustic guitar, but haven’t touched it in decades.
18. Do you have a motto? Chase joy.
19. Biggest accomplishments? Re-inventing my career/life at 30 in New York City in a recession, with no job, friends or family here. Surviving a crazy childhood. Winning a Canadian National Magazine Award.
Watching a ballet at the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City is one of my favorite things to do; if you haven’t yet been to New York or taken in a ballet there, add it to your to-do list!
Lincoln Center, three majestic white marble buildings centered around a stunning circular fountain, sits on the west side of Manhattan, spanning several blocks in the 60s. Walking across its plaza in the darkness always creates a sense of anticipation and elegance, whether you’re going to the opera or the ballet.
I’ve attended performances there over the years — and have even performed on its stage, in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Sleeping Beauty, with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead.
I’d studied ballet since I was 12 and had written about it before, so I was invited to come from Toronto to New York to be an extra — or “super” in the ballet. I was one of four “ladies in black” whose presence on stage in Act One presages the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who casts the spell on Princess Aurora, and puts her into a deep sleep. I didn’t have to dance, but walk beautifully and persuasively in costume so no one would suspect I wasn’t a professional dancer.
As a freelance journalist, I was sent on assignment to write about it by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe & Mail — and dictated my story over the phone from my hotel room at the Empire Hotel to an editor in its Toronto newsroom. (No Internet then!)
What an adventure!
We had no dress rehearsal. We didn’t see our costumes until opening night and my shoes were very tight. I didn’t know the score, and came down (!) several bars too soon, leading three others down a staircase too early behind me. Ohhhhhhh, shit!
I’ve done many crazy things in my life, but staring out at that enormous audience in that prestigious venue, was fairly terrifying. I did all eight performances, exiting every night, as one does, though the stage door — which I now only get to see from the outside.
Last weekend I went with a friend to see the New York City Ballet’s version of Swan Lake, a classic first performed in Moscow in the 1890s. The music is gorgeous, the story — as often with classical ballet — one of deception and mistaken identity, the action orchestrated by a wicked sorcerer against a noble prince being forced to choose a bride.
The NYCB version is short, with only two acts, and the stage set is spectacular — designed by a Danish artist, poet and geologist. One of the reasons ballet is such a rich experience is its combination of sets, costumes, music, choreography and extraordinary dancing, creating a wealth of beauty.
The dancing we saw was a bit spotty, some of it excellent and some of it raggedy, including some of the pas de deux work where partnering is key, the ballerina relying heavily on her partner’s strength and sensitivity to allow her to do her best.
We had excellent seats in the second ring (balcony), with great sight lines; the Koch Theater has four rings, (you can see fine from higher up, but binoculars are helpful from that height.) Our tickets were $103 apiece, which is a lot of money for one show, although I paid $85 in 2006 to see Romeo and Juliet for similar seats, so it’s not much of a price increase in 11 years.
Having written about the ballet several times from backstage, I also really appreciate knowing what it takes to make every performance even possible.
Read your program notes carefully and you’ll find credits for everyone from the wig master to physical therapists and masseurs; it truly takes hundreds of highly-trained specific talents to mount a production, even before the first dancer begins to pirouette. Those pink satin pointe shoes can cost $100 or more per pair — and the corps de ballet alone had 24 women.
I’ve been going to the ballet since I was a small child in Toronto, and never tire of it, whether the warhorses of Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Swan Lake or more modern pieces. One of my favorites is Serenade by Balanchine. That music brings tears to my eyes every time — and the opening montage is unforgettable.
I’m glad I did all those pliés and tendues, because I know, in a small way, the incredible hard work, athleticism and dedication it demands.
I’ve been going to auctions for decades, mostly small regional ones in Nova Scotia, England, New Hampshire and Ontario. I’ve scored some great/lucky deals, both in the room and bidding by phone, buying (gulp!) almost sight unseen, beyond a small thumbnail image on a website.
I’ve even bid in Swedish (!) on a visit to Stockholm and came home with a large antique tray.
On holiday this past summer in Berlin, I stumbled upon an auction house there, Grisebach, and now get their catalogue as well.
My best auction buy ever is a large teal-stained armoire, possibly Quebec in origin and possibly 18th century — as evidenced by its form, its hardware and its construction, (all of which I’ve studied so I had some idea what I was buying!) I bought it over the phone from a New Hampshire auctioneer I know and trust; even with delivery charges to New York, it cost less than new junk made in China.
We’ve sold photos at Swann, so I get their newsletter with upcoming sales and carefully examined everything on-line for this one. So many gorgeous things!
This sale was of 19th and 20th-century prints, including drawings, lithos, etchings, engraving, monoprints, by everyone from Picasso to Thomas Hart Benton to Diego Rivera, whose pencil portrait was something I so wished was in our budget. The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000 — and the price rose quickly from $14,000 to the hammer (final) price of $32,000.
(It’s called the hammer price because, like a courtroom judge, the auctioneer knocks with a small piece of wood on his podium to audibly finish the bidding and announce the piece is sold.)
If you’ve never attended or bid at auction, it can seem terrifying and mysterious, but is neither.
My paddle and the catalogue; (the cover painting, a watercolor by Feininger, sold for $38,000)
You really do have to do some homework, though, to know what it is you hope to buy and whether it’s a limited edition, its rarity, in what condition, and who owned it before, known as provenance. That can add a huge boost to the perceived value of an item, for example, a Cartier watch that belonged to Jackie Onassis, estimated at Christie’s for $129,000 sold for $379,500.
The auction preview — all of this free — allows everyone to carefully examine and note the condition of the item(s) you might want to bid on; if furniture, it’s quite normal to take a small flashlight or blacklight, (which can show evidence of repair), even a threaded needle to see if “wormholes” are fake.
If you’re looking at furniture, you also need to know that a “marriage” means someone has added new material to an older piece, reducing its value, even if it looks great.
At Swann, I saw immediately that both prints I liked had some acidic damage to the surrounding paper, something I wouldn’t have known by bidding online and I learned that a conservator could clean it and what that might cost.
You have to set a budget, as there’s almost always a buyer’s premium, in Swann’s case an additional 25 percent, (plus New York City tax) so the final cost was just over 33 percent more than the hammer price.
Several others might be bidding against you, driving up the price very quickly. Decisiveness is key!
You register and are given a paddle, (a sign with a number), to signal your bid. Each time someone bids the price rises, by increments each time of $100, $1,000, $2,000 or more. (At smaller sales, those can be much smaller.)
Others might also be bidding against you on-line, by a left bid, in the room and by telephone, and the auctioneer has to stay on top of all of it; at Swann, there were four people handling phone bids, one handling on-line bids and one with orders, bids left on paper.
Every item also has a pre-sale estimate — i.e. what they think it might sell for, at the lowest price, but it can go for less, (usually not less than half of that) or for much, much more. It just depends how badly someone wants it.
As the final bids came in, the Swann auctioneer gently said: “Fair warning…Are we all through?” When someone won a piece who was in the room, he said: “Thank you. Congratulations.”
After I won both images (!), he smiled and said “You’re cleaning up today!”
The Swann saleroom was empty most of the time I was there except for a few dealers, with all the action happening on-line and by phone. There were several dogfights and one piece, (by Picasso), started at $60,000 and quickly soared to the hammer price of $100,000.
Matisse works went for $8,000, $13,000 and $12,000 — but one also went for only $550. A work by Paul Klee began at $19,000 and sold for $24,000.
Not every auction is this pricey! At smaller regional auctions, I’ve carried home armloads of loot for $20 to $50.
Who attends, and bids at auction? Collectors, dealers, interior designers shopping for clients.
My hotel room on the 15th floor faced north, to Mount Royal — aka the Mountain. It’s really a very large hill, with a very large cross on top that glows white in the night, but a great landmark.
I used to fly kites there when I lived here at the age of 12 and took the bus along Sherbrooke Street — a major east-west thoroughfare — to school, a place that felt exotic and foreign to me because it was both Catholic (I’m not) and co-ed (I hadn’t shared a classroom with boys in four years.)
Half a block from my hotel is where I used to live, 3432 Peel Street, but that brownstone is long gone, replaced with a tall, new apartment tower.
Montreal is a city unlike any other, a mix of French chic and staid British elegance, of narrow weathered side streets and wide busy boulevards named for former politicians. One distinctive feature are the spiral or straight metal staircases in front of old three-story apartment buildings, which are hell to maneuver when they’re covered with snow and ice.
Street names reflect the linguistic mix: Peel, Mansfield, Greene, Drummond — and St. Laurent, St. Denis, Maisonneuve, Cote Ste. Catherine.
It’s always been a divided city, between the French and English, and at times deeply hostile. Signs, by law, must be in French. Everywhere you go, you’ll hear French being spoken or on restaurant and store playlists.
Sidewalk closed; use other sidewalk….a common sight there now!
I worked in Montreal as a reporter for the Gazette for 18 months, enough for me. The winter was brutally cold and two months longer than Toronto. (Two of my colleagues from the 80s are still at the paper, now in senior positions.)
I loved my enormous downtown apartment with a working fireplace and huge top-floor windows, but I hated that our building was broken into regularly and that shattered car window glass littered our block almost every morning.
On this visit, I met up with a younger friend at Beautys for brunch, (in business since 1942), and got there at 10:00 a.m., before the Sunday line formed outside. The food was good, but hurried, and we were out within an hour, meandering in afternoon sunshine.
We ended up at Else’s, a casual/funky restaurant named for the Norwegian woman who founded it and died, according to her bio on the back of the menu, in 2011. It’s quintessentially Montreal, tucked on a corner of a quiet side street, far away from bustling downtown where all the tourists go. Its round table-tops were each a painted work of art, signed, and covered with layers of clear protective gloss. We stayed for hours, watching low, slanting sunshine pierce the windows and hanging ferns.
The city’s side streets, full of old trees and flowers and narrow apartment buildings with lace-covered glass front doors — Duluth, Rachel, Roy, Prince-Arthur — remain some of my favorite places to wander.
Montreal, (which this visit had too many squeegee guys at the intersections, never a good sign), always has such a different vibe from bustling, self-important Toronto, where I grew up, and where ugly houses now easily command $1 million; In the Gazette this visit, I saw apartments for rent for less than $800, unimaginable in most major North American cities now.
I visited my favorite housewares shop, in business since 1975, Arthur Quentin (pronounced Arrr-Toor, Kahn-Tehn), on St. Denis, and bought a gorgeous burgundy Peugeot pepper grinder. Everything in the store is elegant, from heavy, thick linen tablecloths and tableware to baskets, aprons and every possible kitchen tool.
Downtown has many great early buildings with lovely architectural details —- this is the front door of Holt Renfrew, Canada’s top department store, in business since 1837
I went up to Laurier Ouest, a chic shopping strip frequented by the elegant French neighbors whose homes surround that area, Outremont. It has a great housewares store, (love those brightly colored tablecloths!) and MultiMags, one of best magazine stores I’ve ever seen anywhere, with great souvenirs, pens, cards and notebooks; (it has multiple branches.) A great restaurant, Lemeac, is there as well.
I savored a cocktail (OK, two) at one of my favorite places, the Ritz, where we used to dine every Friday evening the year I lived here with my mother. On our visit after 9/11, when hotel rates plunged enough we could afford to stay there, my husband and I noticed a group sitting near us at breakfast — Aerosmith!
Montreal is also a city of students, with McGill’s handsome limestone campus starting on Sherbrooke and climbing Mt. Royal from there; UQAM is just down the street and there’s also Concordia, (where I first taught journalism.)
Great reflections in the window of a tearoom on St. Denis — the words above the window say: Drink, Laugh and Eat
I’ve visited in glorious 70-degree sunshine — like this past week — and bitterly cold, snow-covered February.
It’s a fun, welcoming city in every season, with great food, cool bars, interesting shops, small/good museums and 375 years of history.
And 2016 saw more visitors than any year since 1967.
It seems impossible, but within a few hours’ drive of crazy, congested New York City is a ferry that crosses the South Bay and lands on a quiet, dune-speckled 32-mile spit of land called Fire Island.
Created by the National Park Service in 1966, it’s a barrier island that’s home to hundreds of privately-owned low-slung homes, nestled into thickets of gnarled, twisted lichen-covered trees and tall stands of speckled grasses.
It’s the anti-Hamptons, where A-listers and millionaires fly to their enormous mansions by helicopter; here everyone crams into the ferry, in flip-flops.
Deer casually graze everywhere, unafraid, as swallows and seagulls and mourning doves flit about.
Lots of brown bunnies and monarch butterflies.
The local lending library and post office
Friends who’ve owned a house there for more than 50 years were kind enough to lend it to us for a week of silence, sun, plane-spotting, and the gentle sound of waves lapping against a fleet of boats just off-shore.
Getting there is easy, leaving from the town of Patchogue on the south shore of Long Island, about a 20-minute ride. Day-trippers can enjoy the beach and a local bar and resturant, while residents keep enormous wooden carts there with which to transport groceries and other necessities.
There’s a restaurant near the section we were in, Davis Park, and a general store and we waited eagerly on Sunday morning for the ferry to arrive with the newspapers.
The island has no roads, so no cars, so it’s really quiet.
The only motorized noise comes from motorboats, Jet-Skis and helicopters — and the low, persistent hum of the ferry.
Typical sounds include mourning doves, the rustling of tall grass, the squeaking of a playground swing, the roar of ocean surf.
As aviation nerds, and passionate travelers, Jose and I loved watching aircraft descending in their final few minutes into JFK airport — we watched them through binoculars arriving from Lisbon, Madrid, Dubai, London, Edinburgh and the Ukraine. (If you don’t know FlightRadar24, check it out!)
I caught up on my reading: Transit by Rachel Cusk (meh); Appointment in Samarra, from 1934 by John O’Hara, (which I enjoyed), On Turpentine Lane (given to me by the publisher, a light read) and How Music Works by Talking Heads’ David Byrne — which was amazing and I only got through half of it so am ordering it in order to read the rest.
(Highlight of the week — chanting the lyrics to Psycho Killer with our French friend, 70, who’s also a huge Talking Heads fan.)
I spent my days reading, napping, taking photos, kayaking, walking the beach, chatting with my husband and, later in the week, two friends who came out to join us. And, (sigh), a bit of work as well.
It rained for two days, which we used to read, nap, play lots of gin rummy and read social media and two daily newspapers.
Some homes on the island are for sale — the least expensive one I saw offered on a public bulletin board was $475,000, and weekly rentals from $1,900 to $4,200 — one dropping to $900 a week in the fall.
We left with sand in our shoes, sunburned, well-rested — and looking forward to returning next summer.