Vacation! 5 Days in DC, 3 at the shore

By Caitlin Kelly

Our first long break since March 2021, which was five days upstate.

We drove south from NY, about 4.5 hours, and treated ourselves to a stay at The Willard, which opened in 1818 — the place where Martin Luther King wrote his “I have a dream” speech and where Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Name anyone powerful in politics here and they’ve stayed or visited — the White House is a few blocks further down Pennsylvania Avenue.

It is classic old-school elegance, and our room was large and quiet.

We arrived in time for Sunday afternoon tea. What a treat! Every table was filled with people, mostly women, dressed up in their best — one table full of women wearing THE BEST HATS.

We are terrible tourists! I am never one to rush around filling my days with seeing all the official sights.

The first day I visited a favorite shop, Goodwood, in business since 1994, an eclectic mix of clothing, accessories, lighting and furniture. A block away is a fun restaurant, Ted’s Bulletin, (the 14th Street location) where I sat at the counter for lunch — repeating both times a pleasure I discovered on my last solo visit there, in March 2020, just as COVID started destroying such simple amusements as travel and eating out.

I was advised to visit the Phillips Collection and whew! It’s now one of my favorite museums anywhere, a collection of art from Renoir and Degas and van Gogh to Rothko, Diebenkorn, Klee, Kandinsky — all set within a huge old mansion. Its courtyard is also very beautiful. The staff are really welcoming and the gift store excellent. I loved the current exhibition of work by Black artist David Driskell, whose work I had never seen.

We had a long great lunch at Le Diplomate with our dear friend and ex NYT photographer Steven Crowley.

We returned — for Jose’s birthday — to one of his old haunts, the jazz club Blues Alley, for the second show. Jose lived in D.C. for eight years as a New York Times photographer, having realized his dream of becoming a member of the White House Press Corps, covering Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

Another day, Jose got his NYT staff pal Doug Mills — too busy to meet for coffee since he covers The President and all his doings — outside the White House for a quick hello. He gave us these M and Ms candies, fresh from Air Force One.

I spent a day antiquing with a very dear friend, one of our rituals, and found a homespun coverlet in pristine condition. It was such a perfect mix of new sights and discoveries, renewing some of our oldest and deepest friendships, enjoying a luxurious hotel. The weather was perfect every day, a bit cool in the evenings and sunny and (not D.C. humid) in the daytime.

We loved our meal at Jaleo, a tapas restaurant.

I was sorry not to have seen more art, as we had planned, but it was just so good to finally see our friends — Jose also caught up with another former NYT colleague.

We then drove 90 minutes east to coastal Maryland and are in Easton for three days, off to a Maritime Museum tomorrow.

It has been a wonderful and badly needed break.

We’re ready to head home and dive back into work, refreshed,

Other people’s lives

Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada,
in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

By Caitlin Kelly

Social media can be social — meeting and getting to know new friends and colleagues solely through LinkedIn or Twitter or TikTok or blogs or Insta or Twitter — and/or, passively, it can offer us a peek into other worlds, wholly different from our own.

Given that we’ll have to stay physically distant from so many people for so many years — yes, years with this goddamn pandemic — virtual life and relationships are the safest and best many of us have now.

Travel? Also difficult to impossible; we recently lost $2,000 for non-refundable airfare and hotels after cancelling two much-anticipated vacations.

So, yes, I’m loving images (however enviously!) from Greece and Morocco and Kenya and Cornwall and the Hebrides…

Last week, Abby Lee Hood and I did a pitching workshop aimed at helping other freelance writers write better pitches — a pitch is a sort of a sales document for a story we might want to write. They’re not easy to do well and we got 47 people to sign up, which was fantastic. It went very well and people were still buying copies of our Zoom video days later.

I’ve yet to meet Abby, who is non-binary and has tattoos and owns a small pig, a three-legged cat, an albino hedgehog and a dog. They live in small-town Tennessee, a state I’ve never been to.

They are 27. I am…much older.

What on earth would we have in common?

A lot!

As we’ve gotten to know one another, we found we both share some similar issues with our families of origin. We both have high ambitions for our work. We both hustle hard for assignments. And we also share some fundamental life values.

I’ve found them to be a deeply generous person, rare these days it seems.

So I hope our workshop, beyond its obvious goal, also modeled that sort of inter-generational friendship for a few others.

Some of the many lives I enjoy witnessing, between Twitter and Instagram, include:

Three women archeologists

A male archeologist in Berlin who works on Gobekli Tepe, a famous Neolithic Turkish site; I met him on one of the travel Twitterchats I participate in

A Canadian Arctic marine biologist

A Chilean photographer

A photographer in Queretaro, Mexico

A Canadian mother of two young boys in Australia whose nature photos are amazing

A Scottish mountain climber

A nephrologist in San Antonio, Texas who writes as Doctor T on Twitter

A French illustrator

Several interior designers

Several artists, one a young British woman whose work is spectacular but who posts rarely

A London-based dealer in antique and rare textiles

Several European female commercial airline pilots

A mudlarker in London

A few economists

And (sigh) several Facebook groups about buying a home and living in France, a dream of mine for a long time.

Do you have favorite blogs or social media folk you really enjoy?

The new normal

By Caitlin Kelly

Constant change.

It’s exhausting.

Making plans — breaking them.

Planning a vacation — cancelling it.

Thought we were safe? No, not for a long long time.

Powerful essay on Medium about this:

What if the pandemic just never ends? What if the New Normal is not some accommodated version of the old normal, but instead is just…this? What if what we are experiencing now — this constant state of anxiety and change and daily back-and-forth and in-and-out of masks and lock-downs — is what the 21st century will be? What if the economic recovery is DOA or if it somehow only makes things worse? What if this is just the beginning of much larger and more frequent health, climate, political, and economic disasters?

Jose and I were so looking forward to attending a wedding in Memphis, Tennessee in early September. It would have been our first flight in two years and our first visit out of state. We were so excited! The women getting married, a couple we met on Twitter, demanded proof of vaccination, which we were fine with.

Then, proof of negative tests. We cancelled.

I have no objection to their request.

But the pleasure was quickly leaching out of what was to have been a relaxing break. That state now has hospitals so full there’s no room left.

We had planned a month’s driving trip out to Colorado and back in October. Cancelled.

We had already planned and cancelled Hawaii or Paris.

I’m hitting bottom right now.

I admit it — I’ve been spoiled since childhood by travel being a normal and expected source of pleasure, one easily accessible. Not in luxury, necessarily, but always owning a valid passport and a reliable vehicle and having an insatiable hunger to see more of the world.\

One of our Montreal favorites

I’ve already been to 41 countries — and there are so so many places I still want to see!

Morocco, Japan, Namibia, South Africa, Madagascar, the Baltic nations, to name only a few…

And we miss our friends in Ontario and Nova Scotia and Paris and London and Scotland…

I chose to move to the U.S. and, since Biden’s election, my pulse rate has dropped from the daily anxiety of being “governed” by a madman for four years.

But the endless divisions here, and endless fawning media coverage of people who refuse vaccinations — endangering all of us — are tedious as hell. Thanks to them, going basically anywhere is dangerous.

And — most concerning — even the vaccinated can carry a lot of this virus, unknowingly infecting others while showing no symptoms.

Like all of you, we work hard.

Like all of you, we need things to look forward to!

And, as I write this on our balcony, planes soar over our heads, as we’re on a flight path from the local airport.

SIGH.

These days, all we can anticipate is constant change — and disappointment.

A bit more of the essay:

the pandemic has put life into perspective. It has made crystal clear that love and health are what’s important in this life. The rest is what it is. We must be grateful for what we have, find joy wherever we can, and be incredibly patient with, well…everything else. In cultures that have survived war, that made it through bombings and mass killings and attacks, people turn to all that does not change for comfort and hope. As their day-to-day reality changes around them, they find solace in anything that is constant and unifying: their food, their language, their songs, their fairytales, their games, their age-old traditions.

Right now, I have to take solace in what we have and can enjoy that COVID can’t destroy:

our Hudson river view

a town we love living in

a new (woman!) governor who’s a badass

deep and abiding friendships

savings

freelance work

Manhattan, literally, on our horizon, there when we need a break from snoozy suburban life

a home we’ve made beautiful through design, renovation, art

a good hospital 15 minutes north of us

we are both vaccinated and will take boosters when and if they are offered

lovely places to walk and bike outdoors safely

books and music and card games and puzzles to amuse us

How are you holding up these days?

The power of scent

Lilac — the best!

Like some of you, perhaps, I’m obsessed with fragrance, and not a day goes by (unless an appointment in small shared spaces) without wearing perfume — currently in rotation are Terre by Hermes (winter only), L’Eau de l’Artisan by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Chanel No. 5, Prada Iris and Herbae, a spontaneous purchase this year, by L’Occitane.

So this story from Spain was perfect.

He leads “smelling tours”:

“Smell goes directly to your emotions, you are crying, you don’t know why,” Mr. Collado expounded as the others leaned in. “Smelling has a power that none of the other senses have, and I must tell you now, it is molecular, it goes to the essence of the essence.”

Our lives are filled with scents, some pleasant, some less so and they can so powerfully evoke memories.

When we married, in September 2011 in a small wooden church on an island in Toronto harbor, I was so deeply comforted by the smell of sun-warmed wood — a cherished memory of my summers at camp, where we slept in wooden cabins and all our buildings were made of wood.

Some of my favorite smells include:

jet fuel (!), motorboat gas (I think it’s the connotation of motion/travel!), cut grass, sun dried pine needles, the ocean, coffee grounds, Balkan Sobranie pipe tobacco, gardenia, lilac, the peppery scent of marigolds, the briny smell of fresh oysters, good leather — shoes or a saddle or a lovely old jacket, new books!

Jose and I have an odd scent we both love, from our childhoods — the distinctive but subtle fragrance of an olive green Spanish soap and perfume called Maja. It still comes wrapped in black tissue paper.

Created in 1921, here’s a description of it:

Top notes are Geranium, Citruses, Tobacco and Orange Blossom; middle notes are Carnation, Cloves, Nutmeg, Rose, Lavender, Leather and Jasmine; base notes are Patchouli, Cypress, Tonka Bean, Amber, Benzoin and Oakmoss.

I adored a Roger & Gallet soap with the spicy scent of carnation as well but (sob!) it seems to have been discontinued.

The night I met Jose in March 2000 he wore a delicious scent — 1881 — whose top notes also include carnation, juniper, lavender and cypress, created in 1990. He was wearing a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl (!) as a muffler and, at the end of the evening, took it off and wrapped me in it.

DONE.

Perhaps my favorite memory of scent is the week I spent alone traveling across the Balagne, the northern tip of Corsica, by mo-ped. It was July and I drove across endless fields of the low, scrubby brush known as maquis, a mix of fragrant plants — sun-warmed, their fragrance filled my nostrils. So sensual!

What are some of your favorite smells, and why?

Diminishing returns…worth continuing?

By Caitlin Kelly

Well, that was depressing!

I finally made time to do an analysis of who visits this site, while WordPress tells me it has 23,193 followers.

I see no evidence of that!

Starting March 2018 — pre-pandemic and mass distraction/anxiety related to COVID — my views have since dropped to double digits per day, from three digits, which isn’t impressive but better than this.

I enjoy blogging but, like you, have no time or energy to waste pumping stuff into silence and invisibility.

I know some readers here — much appreciated!!! — have been reading and commenting since the start, July 1, 2009.

Is this worth continuing?

Are you even making/finding time for other/better/more compelling blogs?

What is this missing or doing so poorly?

A perfect Manhattan afternoon

By Caitlin Kelly

What a luxury it is to live so close to New York City!

I can drive in from our suburban town and (if lucky!) be parked on the street within 30 to 40 minutes.

I seem to have tremendous parking karma — which means, very often, I’ll find a spot on the street where I don’t even have to pay (on Sunday, for example), saving me as much as $50 for garage parking for 3-5 hours in fancier neighborhoods.

So I drove in last Sunday to Lexington and 83d, a neighborhood called the Upper East Side, UES, to meet a young friend for brunch at the Lexington Candy Shop, which is a tiny diner on that corner that opened in 1925.

They’re touchy about guests staying too long and by noon there was a line-up.

Then it’s an easy walk west along 83d to the Metropolitan Museum, which, for now has timed admission you reserve in advance.

If you’ve never yet been to New York or to the Met, the whole experience of the UES is well worth it; even the walk, across Park and Madison leads you past elegant townhouses and uniformed doormen, a guy smoking a stogie leaning on a car, a dog-walker with a huge, shaggy something and two pugs. The people watching is always good, and there are so many lovely architectural details to enjoy — from flower-filled window-boxes to carved gargoyles to the wrought-iron frames of pre-war apartment building entrance doors.

The Met has wide steps that make great seating, and musicians — competing! — settle in to entertain. There are plenty of food trucks — for $14 I got a falafel wrap and a lemonade.

New York state residents can pay as little or as much as we want for the Met’s admission fees — everyone else pays $12 (students), $17 seniors over 65 or the full fare of $25.

It’s tempting to think you have to see everything there if you’re a tourist, but that would be impossible! If you really do pay attention to objects, and read labels and wall signs, you’ll soon feel overloaded.

I find it all so moving — the Roman marble family sculpture from a cemetery; the tiny metal pins in the shape of animals that Roman soldiers wore (!); red and black Greek pottery; exquisite enamels of the 17th c; medieval tapestries —- and that’s just a few main floor galleries!

What amazing things have been produced by so many people. To see them close up is such a joy.

I love to visit a pair of gold earrings I find totally enchanting.

The place is quiet and civilized and there are plenty of benches to rest on. Everyone must be masked.

You can have the oddest moment of looking at something millennia old — and stare out the Fifth Avenue windows at the millionaires’ apartments across the street.

The gift shop is full of gorgeous things, jewelry and scarves, pens and pencils and books and puzzles and posters.

I remember it being full of astounding art and art history books — but not now?

It’s an interesting reminder that, without rich people’s generosity, many museums (certainly in the U.S.), would have a lot less stuff to show us; labels tell you what an item is and how old and maybe what it was used for, but also when it was acquired and using what funds. So the Jayne Wrightsman Galleries, for example, are huge and full of very ornate French material, not my taste at all.

Every room in the Greek and Roman galleries had the name of some wealthy benefactor.

These eyes, which would have been added to Roman or Greek sculptures are creepy — but also amazing.

I have a favorite painting I like to say hello to as well, on the second floor, of Joan of Arc, painted in 1879.

Have you been to the Met?

What are some of your favorite local museums?

Writing personal history

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m no celebrity, obviously, but have been urged for a while to write a memoir.

I’ve always resisted because…really?

How would my life be of interest to strangers?

I’ve enjoyed it, for sure, and had some wild adventures — visiting 41 countries, a two-year marriage, winning some nice writing awards — but is that of larger appeal?

I’ve had a great career: three major newspaper jobs with some fantastic assignments (going to the Arctic, covering Queen Elizabeth), a European fellowship, two books, etc. — so maybe some of that would be interesting to other journalists.

My family, as readers here know, is not a Hallmark card. My late mother and I were estranged for the last decade of her life. I have three half-siblings, one of whom I’m estranged from, one of whom is a self-made millionaire and one I’ve never met and don’t want to.

So, does a any of this add up to a book an agent will rep and a publisher will buy?

To be determined.

Most books are 80,000 words.

So far, I’ve easily and quickly written 20,000 and, to my surprise, am really enjoying it. It’s a mix of personal and professional stories, ranging from my time in Toronto to that in Paris to moving to New York knowing no one and without a job.

I have diaries from my 20s I haven’t even looked at, and a journal from 1998 of my trip to Australia and New Zealand, so I have some material there to work from.

Thanks to Google, I’m constantly fact-checking — like the distance from Montreal to the Arctic, or where the tree line ends in Quebec (the 56th parallel.) I also found a glaring error in my aunt’s Wikipedia entry, so am fortunate my father is still alive and lucid at 93 to do some corrections there; my aunt and uncle, both Canadian but British residents, were very well known in Britain in the 1960s and 70s for their work in TV and radio.

Several people who follow me on social media are most intrigued by my estrangements — how and when they happened and how it has affected me; my recent New York Times story on this topic elicited a stunning 700 comments, so it clearly struck a nerve.

We’ll see if this ends up being commercially useful.

Memoir starts with “me” — but it has to make sense to thousands of strangers.

In the meantime, I’m banging out 1,000 to 1,500 words a day.

What, if anything, would you want to know about me?

The van Gogh immersive show

By Caitlin Kelly

This show is making the global rounds — at least in North America — currently in Manhattan at Pier 36 until September 6.

I recently saw it with a good friend and recommend it.

It is not cheap! Our tickets were $66 each, for an hour of entertainment, although we were able to see the show more than once by just staying in the room.

There are three rooms, the first being long and fairly narrow, the third, the most interior, is enormous — and has a totally different and overwhelming sense of scale; it also has a few benches, otherwise you’re sitting on the floor.

If you know some of his work, you’ll enjoy seeing some old favorites — like the Postman. If you’re new to it, dozens of images will move past you in a hypnotic array.

I have no idea how its creators got permission to use any of the images, or if anyone in the van Gogh family is getting income from this — I sure hope so!

They have somehow managed to make some of the images come to life, through animation — like this windmill.

The show, designed by three Italians, is accompanied by a variety of music, from a Mussorgsky piece to Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien” and it enhances the experience.

The site design also includes a variety of reflective elements, from bubbles to tall columns to what look like huge rocks — which bounce the images around the room even further.

It’s all very beautiful.

My main issue with it may seem pedantic — there’s nothing said about Vincent van Gogh, who died at 37, and who created this amazing art. The gift shop is, to my mind, overkill — crocheted keychains?!

But I enjoyed it and am glad we went.

Turns out there are many many versions of this idea!

Like this one…

Have you seen this one?

What did you think?

Taking a short break

By Caitlin Kelly

Having been basically mugged on Facebook this week by someone determined to professionally sabotage me, I’m a little sour on social media right now.

It was real shock to me, and has left me sickened by how vicious someone can choose to be.

So with July 1 (Canada Day) and July 4 coming up, I’m laying down tools for now.

See you in a week or so.

Stay cool!

ohhhhh, Canada. Such disappointment

A beloved bistro in Montreal, L’Express

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, I was born in Vancouver and grew up in Toronto and Montreal — moving to the U.S. at 30 to pursue a bigger career.

I carry only a Canadian passport and have long been proud of my country, reveling in adorable videos like this.

Not this week.

Not this month.

Not this year.

A Muslim family was out for a walk in London, Ontario, a regional city. Five went out and one returned — the rest mown down by a racist piece of garbage in his truck, who hated them for being…non-white. Non-Christian.

The sole survivor is a nine-year-old boy, orphaned.

The week prior, the remains of 215 indigenous children, sent away by law to residential school in Kamloops, B.C. were found, re-opening the old wounds of how thousands of these children were torn from their families and made to speak English and deride their native culture.

To become “Canadian” — white and Christian.

See a pattern?

And now a vicious and brutal attack on a gay man in Toronto for daring to be homosexual.

Not sure how I will celebrate Canada Day, July 1, this year.

Not sure I want to right now.

I haven’t been back to Canada since September 2019 because of Covid; the border has been closed ever since unless my travel is “essential” and it’s not.

Canadians so love to congratulate themselves for being polite and civil and compassionate, traditionally welcoming far more refugees and immigrants than the U.S. and many other countries.

Their social policies are generally much more generous than those in the U.S.

And they really enjoy making sure they are so much better than those nasty, violent racist Americans.

Today? I think not.

When I last lived in Toronto, the streetcar I took to the subway was filled with Caribbean Blacks, the bus down Spadina to my newspaper job filled with Vietnamese.

That was just normal life there.

No one noticed. No one sparked violence.

Pay your taxes, get along.

There isn’t a lot useful to say here, really, beyond expressing my horror and deep disappointment in my country of origin. Sadly, I just expect daily racism and violence in the U.S. It’s baked into the DNA here.

Canada is 100 years younger.

It did not have slavery — although its racist policies have destroyed generations of Inuit and indigenous lives.

To see this hatred is deeply deeply disturbing.

I am ashamed for my country.