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Three weeks in Ireland…final reflections

In beauty, cities, culture, life, travel, urban life, world on July 3, 2015 at 9:19 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- Europe's highest cliffs

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — Europe’s highest cliffs

It took a while to determine the bird we heard everywhere in Donegal, and whose trilling song sounds just like a modem, (Google it, young ‘uns!). It turned out to be a skylark, an unforgettable sound.

Our rented house, which was ear-ringingly silent, awoke on our final morning to a distinct tap-tap-tap. It was a fat magpie rapping its beak against the window before fanning its feathers indignantly and strutting off into the grass.

After a glorious week in the cottage — a three-bedroom house, architect-designed, (and it’s available the week of July, book here!)  — in Donegal, we returned to Dublin, a four-hour drive. My husband was kind enough to do all the driving. We rented a VW Golf, diesel, and liked it a lot: quiet, comfortable and very economical on fuel.

It was tough to find hotel rooms for the week in Dublin on a month’s notice, and every single hotel was booked the night of July 1 — for an AC/DC concert!

There’s a flea market in Dublin but only on the final Sunday of every month, which happened to be the one we’re here for. I love exploring flea markets so that was a definite.

I scored! A hand-knit wool sweater for five euros, a mirrored Indian bag for 10 euros and five silver-plate forks for five euros. That’s my kind of flea market.

Our vacation has been filled with surprises, most lovely, a few less so.

Like:

— The driest Dublin June in 40 years. Yay! We had only one day of rain. I’m returning with, (yes, really) an Irish tan.

— The tree-shaded canal a block from our hotel, lined every few feet with comfortable benches, where I sat and watched a duck with her five palm-sized ducklings

The Luas -- which means "speed" in Irish

The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

— The worst public transit system I’ve seen in any major city of comparable size. There are only two tram lines and they’re very short and they don’t intersect. Yes, there are plenty of yellow double-decker city buses, but no official bus map available. Even locals agree it’s a disaster.

— A ton of construction all around Trinity College (as they expand the tram system), making road traffic and pedestrian traffic a big mess.

— The best foie gras I’ve ever eaten at L’Gueleton. Go!

— Sunset in Dun Laoghaire, a quick DART ride from Dublin, and dinner at there at Fallon & Byrne in People’s Park

— The shocking loss of three people suddenly swept out to sea while walking on shore in Baltimore, Co. Cork

An amazing collection of Asian art at the National Museum of Decorative Art, including a room filled with Buddhist tangkas

The Titanic Museum in Belfast, (a 2.5 hr train ride north of Dublin) was well worth the cost of trainfare and the time to travel there. We spent 3.5 hours at the museum itself, which is typical, and enjoyed every minute.

— Getting to know a dear Dublin friend’s husband and adult daughter, and renewing a 30-year-old friendship forged on a fellowship we shared in Paris

— Salmon, salmon and more salmon!

— Oysters, oysters and more oysters!

— Cheap and plentiful Dublin taxis

We will dearly miss a nation of people who still thrive on lively, engaged conversation. It was blessedly very rare indeed, anywhere, to see people staring at their damn cellphones while sitting with others in a social space like a pub, bar or restaurant.

We will miss the extraordinary light, a sky that stays lit until almost midnight.

We will miss the glowing green of stone-walled fields.

We will miss the warmth of new friends.

Jose gazing out the window of our rented cottage

Jose gazing out the window of our rented cottage

We will miss the silent, craggy beauty of Donegal, where only the wind could be heard.

We will miss being able to cross an entire country within a few hours’ driving.

I will miss seeing my family name — Kelly — on shops and trucks and signage everywhere.

We hope to return soon!

Have you been to Ireland?

What did you enjoy most?

Ten more travel tips — Key? Ignore the experts

In behavior, blogging, cities, culture, life, travel, urban life, world on July 1, 2015 at 7:08 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ll post a final Irish piece later this week.

In the meantime, some more tips:

Ignore everyone’s advice, including the guidebook(s) Really? Maybe. We use Fodor’s and read stuff on-line and read some travel stories before/during our travels, but so often the things that have given us the greatest pleasure are not mentioned anywhere while everyone insists you must do atonofthingsthatdonotinterestyouintheslightest! For example, our very first night in Dublin on our own, Jose found a quiet, simple restaurant a block from our hotel. Great food, good prices, dead quiet, Mamma Mia.

Of course, we have tried other activities and restaurants mentioned by the guidebook, but one of the best days we’ve had here was a day-trip (15 minute ferry ride) to the island of Arranmore, with not a word about it in our guidebook. I am a Very Bad Tourist. I loathe crowds, standing in line, crowds, others tourists, heat. There are only so many statues/monuments/buildings/museums I can take (and it’s shockingly few.) That alone rules out a lot of official sights we are urged to get to. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s your vacation.

Do what makes you happiest, not ticking off a list to please other people! Posting your trip as you go on social media, if your friends are well-traveled, will elicit a shit-ton of advice.

Ignore it as needed.

It costs HOW much?!!!

It costs HOW much?!!!

Prepare for surprise budget-busters In Dublin, there are only two tram lines and, yes, plenty of city buses. But no (?!) printed bus map, a basic asset in New York City, for example, with which to plan your day. So we’ve been taking taxis everywhere. The good news? They are plentiful and cheap. But not a cost I had planned on.

In other cities, it might be the cost of loads of laundry or shoe repair or a doctor’s visit — or all of these. Allow for some surprise costs. IMG_0377 Enjoy some local services

Jose got a great five-euro haircut in Dungloe. He did the same when we were in Cuernavaca. I’ve treated myself to massages and salon visits in Paris.

My one-way ticket, 2 euros, 20. The fun bit? The voice telling riders to take their ticket and their change -- and announcing every tram stop in English and Irish -- is that of my Dublin friend, a career broadcaster

My one-way ticket, 2 euros, 20. The fun bit? The voice telling riders to take their ticket and their change — and announcing every tram stop in English and Irish — is that of my Dublin friend, a career broadcaster

Use local transit — bus, trains, commuter trains and subway

We took the train north to Belfast (2.25 hours one way) and were thrilled with how clean, quiet and quick it was. You’ll get a much better feel for how life is lived locally if you’re sharing transport with natives, whether a matatu in Kenya, a tuktuk in Bangkok, a shared taxi in my hometown of Tarrytown, NY or atop one of London’s double deckers. Our many long bus rides across Mexico were a highlight of our vacation there.

Get out of town!
Especially if you’re traveling in summer heat and humidity, cities anywhere can quickly feel exhausting, dirty, smelly and oppressive. Almost every city has a beach or some green hills nearby; from Manhattan, a 40-minute train ride straight up the edge of the Hudson River is cheap and gorgeous and drops you off in our town. Within a half-hour of Dublin are gorgeous beaches and waterfront in one direction, the Wicklow hills in another. In Toronto, take the ferry across the harbor to the Islands and spend a glorious day biking through the parks. Sit on a patch of green or sand and just…breathe. nyt Read the local papers, in print

If you’ve got language skills, use them! If you’re in an English-speaking country, there’s no better way to really get a feel for what people around you care about right now than reading the letters to the editor, op-eds, editorials and — oh, yeah — the news and feature stories. Don’t stick to CNN. The whole point of fleeing your native culture is to immerse yourself in another.

Bring (and collect) business cards

Yes, really. We’ve handed them out to all sorts of people along the way, some social, some for business. You may want to re-connect with people and they with you. Yes, social media are great. But a well-designed business card carries a professional formality some will really appreciate. (Like Japan.)

Lincoln Center, NYC. Not likely to disappoint!

Lincoln Center, NYC. Not likely to disappoint!

You will, occasionally at best, be disappointed. It’s no big deal!

It happens: the food was too spicy (or not spicy enough) or the service was bad or the bed was too small or the room too noisy. Change whatever you can, (without being an Ugly Tourist!), and go with the flow as much as possible. A vacation in a foreign place means adapting to all sorts of things, some of which you’ll enjoy more (or less) than others. Moderate your expectations and do your homework.

Make local friends

Thanks to my blog and to Jose’s use of social media, we’ve made some terrific new friends by being a little brave and open to the idea. In Paris in December and January, I loved meeting up with four of my blog readers, Juliet, Mallory, Gillian and Catherine — all of whom were only virtual friends until we all made the effort to get together. It might have been terrible! But it wasn’t. In Dublin, Jose and I met up with a local photographer and his wife that he had met through Facebook. We had a great time.

I treasure my little robot, bought in Paris

I treasure my little robot, bought in Paris

Shop for souvenirs in the least-likely places

Yes, you can easily buy a snow globe or a linen tea towel or an Eiffel tower. But why not head off the beaten path and check out local pharmacies, hardware and grocery stores, sporting goods stores and other less-predictable venues for interesting and offbeat souvenirs and gifts?

We still use a polka-dotted apron we bought in Paris at BHV, a major department store and a bright-green enamel corkscrew from a local wine shop there. I use a white enamel pen I bought down the street from our Paris flat.

I treasure the Corsican polyphonic music a man there gave me as a gift, and listen to I Muvrini often. You might find a fantastic skin care line or a great bag of spices or a fantastic cheese knife. In Ireland you could bring home a hurling ball — a sliotar. Ah, go on!

Travel — and enjoy it! Ten tips from a globe-trotter

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, life, travel, urban life, world on June 28, 2015 at 7:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- Europe's highest cliffs

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — Europe’s highest cliffs

I’m writing this from a gorgeous hotel in Dublin called The Schoolhouse, which was converted from a red-brick Victorian schoolhouse into a hotel with a small, lovely garden. Jose and I are here for seven nights.

As you can see, we prefer places the Irish would call characterful to the mass-market chains — places that are small, intimate, quirky and historic. We typically rent or borrow an apartment when in Paris or are lucky enough to stay with friends.

Having — so far — been to 39 countries, and often on a tight budget, I’ve learned how to have a great time out there, whether a road trip near home or a long-haul flight away.

Here, a few tips; we have no children, so these are likely most useful for people without them.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

What do you want most from your vacation?

I think this question is the single most important of all. If all you really want to do is slarb out, sleep/eat/read/repeat, own it! Nor do you have to head to a beach to enjoy a lazy time of it. It might be a cottage in the woods or a luxury hotel or a rented flat. If your partner/spouse/BFF wants to be up at dawn and hitting all the official sights the second they open, how will that affect your vision of happy time off?

A full, frank discussion before you start booking lodging or travel is a good idea. Few things are more miserable than arriving somewhere with a person, (or a crowd), with wholly different notions of what “holiday” means.

I loved traveling in a dugout canoe in Nicaragua

I loved traveling in a dugout canoe in Nicaragua

What makes your pulse race?

For me, it’s armloads of natural beauty — so places like the Grand Canyon and Thailand and the coast of British Columbia, not to mention Ireland! — fit the bill perfectly. But I’m also a big city girl, and love to shop, eat, sit in a cafe and people-watch for hours. So my perfect vacation combines both. Your great love might be the craps table or flea markets or museums or a cooking class or…

Fewer/slower beats seeingeverythingallatonce!

I realize that, for many people, a distant journey might truly be once in a lifetime, so the compulsion to try and see and experience everything is a strong one. Resist it!

Our three weeks in Ireland, which is my fifth time here and my husband’s first, has included only two stops, Dublin and Donegal. The Oklahoma couple stepping into our rental car reeled off the list of their destinations and it made me dizzy. I loved getting to know Donegal much better, and doing quick day trips — an hour each way or so — from home base, (a rented cottage), easily allowed for that.

This photo contains all the things that make me happy, whether at home or far away: painting, writing, a pot of tea and a stack of newspapers

This photo contains many of the things that make me happy, whether at home or far away: painting, writing, a pot of tea and a stack of newspapers

Know/respect your own typical rhythms and those of your travel companion(s)

Few things are as nasty as fighting endlessly on vacation, a limited time as it is, about who’s sleeping in too late, “wasting” hours on a late-afternoon nap or partying too late into the wee hours.

Jose and I often take a “toes up” while traveling to recharge us after a day out before heading out again for dinner. On this trip, we bought a small bottle of gin, cans of tonic water and even a few lemons. Nothing like a shower and a fresh G & T in the room at day’s end! We also bought biscuits, nuts, dried fruit and fresh fruit so we had some healthy snacks waiting for us.

If you long for a lazy lie-in and an hour’s bath, do it! Dragging yourself all over the place to satisfy someone else’s schedule, or your own expectations of doingitallorelse! is no fun.

Pack lightly, and carefully

Especially in Europe and in smaller hotels, (i.e. no bellhops), you’ll be humping your own baggage, whether up and down the London Tube stairs or across a cobble-stoned street. Ireland is known for offering all four seasons every day, even in summer, so I packed light wool cardigans and plenty of over-sized scarves while Jose layered cotton T-shirts beneath his dress shirts. Unless you’re in the wilderness or a very poor country —  (both can make great vacations, obviously) — you can likely buy whatever else you need in-country. My bag was six kilos under the allowed weight on the way over to Ireland, and I planned to ditch several books here. I knew I’d also be shopping!

Give your tired old dogs a rest!

Give your tired old dogs a rest!

Rest!

It’s tempting to spend your precious vacation driving long distances every day and/or racing from one tourist site to the next. I saw a fellow guest here with a very long list in his hand. Sigh. We had only six days in Donegal and a very ambitious list of what we hoped to see. Hah! Instead, we enjoyed lazy mornings and headed out at 11:00 or so for lunch and exploration; daylight til 10:30 pm helped.

But there is much left to see, even in that one county, and we’re already planning a return trip. On our one rainy, cloudy day I read, painted, snoozed.

The whole point of vacation is to restore, refresh and recharge our work-weary souls.

Consider renting a place

We don’t use Air B & B but have rented apartments in Paris and a cottage in Ireland. It’s great to shop local food markets, get to know the local baker/butcher/produce store and see what different products are on offer in the grocery stores.

Washed Roosters?! It’s a potato.

IMG_0080

Aubergine = eggplant.

I also like being able to cook breakfast and dinner at home, which is both cheap and healthy; our groceries for a week (in which we also ate out), were 70 euros which bought so much food we took some away with us when we left.

L1000220

Being able to do loads of laundry, even daily as needed, saves a fortune on hotel laundry costs and allows you to pack much less. (More shopping!)

Leave room for serendipity

Highlight of this trip?

L1000262

An unplanned exhausting/exhiliarating golf game with two retired schoolteachers on a links course on Cruit Island, (pronounced Crutch); if we’d had a rigidly-planned schedule and insisted on sticking to it, we’d never have had this amazing experience. It was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever had on the road: spectacular scenery, 2.5 hours of vigorous/fun exercise, making new friends, experiencing one of the most Irish of sports — links golf, (from an old English word for ridge, hlinc.)

L1000287

L1000282

Another night we headed to Dungloe’s Corner Bar, and ended up listening to one of the nation’s top musicians who just happened to be in the bar that night.

In Dublin, where the flea market is held only one day a month, it was the one Sunday we were here. Yay! I scored a gorgeous plum-colored wool sweater (five euros), an antique Rajasthani mirrored bag (10 euros) and a set of five silver-plate forks for five euros.

Make time for yourself, all alone

If you’re dying for a haircut, massage, mani-pedi or some shopping, do it. By yourself. Maybe you’d rather take photos or just sit still and read a book, magazine, email or newspaper. Jose and I already share a small apartment and now both work from from home — so three weeks’ vacation joined at the hip can feel a bit oppressive.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a day or two off from your companion(s) — or vice versa — and coming back with fresh stories and photos to share.

Sit still and just be (there)

Found in Nicaragua

Found in Nicaragua

In a world of constant connection, turn off your bloody phone!

Ignore email/Twitter/Instagram/your blog.

The only way to truly savor where you are is to be there. To remain fully present. To sit in total silence, whenever possible.

One afternoon, I spread out on the spongy vegetation of Arranmore Island and just napped. I sat on the edge of a cliff and stared at the gulls below me, the waves crashing against the rocks, the bobbing orange lobster-pot markers.

I treasure the combination of a blessedly-emptied mind and eyes filled with beauty.

Three weeks in Ireland…touring County Donegal

In beauty, culture, life, nature, photography, travel, Weather, world on June 25, 2015 at 11:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Sunset at Burtonport, County Donegal. The time? 10-:15 p.m. Yes, really!

Sunset at Burtonport, County Donegal. The time? 10:15 p.m. Yes, really!

There are only a few regions left in Ireland known as the Gaeltacht, where the Irish language dominates — without a bilingual map (which we have), you’re toast! Only 2.1 percent of the country’s population now speaks Irish, according to the 2006 census.

County Donegal, where we’ve rented a house for a week outside the town of Dungloe, is one of these areas.

How did we choose this most northwest, rural, tourist-free and wind-swept county for our vacation?

All over the land are bits of loose wool. Pre-sweater!

All over the land are bits of loose wool. Pre-sweater!

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the seaside town here of Rathmullan, which my father and I visited a few years ago. So we re-visited the town, which has a huge, beautiful beach on Lough Swilly, and chatted with a local woman who hopes to buy the schoolhouse and use it as a holiday home for her visiting relatives.

I found the house we’re renting, (3 bedrooms, two bathrooms, two floors, flooded with light from huge windows and multiple skylights) on Google. Fingers were crossed!

We love it. Designed by the owner’s cousin, and only seven years old, the house is lovely. Absolute silence, great views, a deep bathtub right in front of a window with fab views — and no close neighbors.

The light here so far north is also relentless — it is fully light by 4:00 am, (our bed is right below an unscreened skylight!) and the sky is not fully dark until midnight or so.

Best of all? No wifi or phone access.

That’s a vacation.

If we want (as we do, sadly) to be in touch for blogging, email and Twitter, we have to get in our rental car, (a VW Golf, diesel, which we like a lot), and drive 5 minutes into town to a pub or restaurant and order some food or a Guinness.

But what a blessing to be torn away from the seductive tyranny of the computer.

One night we settled in at The Corner Pub to hear live music, a young woman who carried her accordion in a specially-designed backpack, and Martin, who played banjo. It’s not yet tourist season, so it was just us, a couple from Switzerland and the locals — like the newly-retired schoolteacher who cheered “Goodbye tension, hello pension!” — and covered her face with embarrassment when we toasted her.

The young woman asked us where we’re from (Tarrytown, NY, a small town 25 miles north of NYC.) “Oh, it’s lovely!” she said — she knows our area well, and will be playing two local venues near us in mid-July with her band, Cherish The Ladies. Then touring all the way to Minnesota with them; she plays piano. CTL is a very big deal, a 30-year-old band I’ve heard of for years, so this unlikely meeting was huge. (Her cousin owns that pub and her parents live locally.)

We’ve spent our time here making day trips. We went across the county to Rathmullan and enoyed a warm, sunny day.

Fishing lines at rest, Burtonport, Co. Donegal

Fishing lines at rest, Burtonport, Co. Donegal

We drove south to Slieve League, the highest cliffs in Europe — and watched a huge cloud coming towards us across the sea. Suddenly we were enveloped by mist, and everything disappeared. So mysterious! Only after we were settled in with a cup of tea and a scone, in a shop at the bottom of the cliffs, did the sun come out. We’d already done a vigorous 1.8 mile round-trip hike to the top of the cliffs (not the absolute top.) We were sweaty and pooped!

Look at the size of this! We were soon enveloped by it at Slieve League, Co. Donegal

Look at the size of this! We were soon enveloped by it at Slieve League, Co. Donegal

The cliffs were astounding, covered with sheep of all ages and sizes, so accustomed to tourists we got close enough to take lots of photos and listen to them grazing.

IMG_0416

We went out another day by ferry, (15 minutes, 45 euros for 2 people and car), to Arranmore, a nearby island. There are 600 people living there and many well-kept houses. But we spent five hours there driving the few narrow roads, and discovered a totally different character to every side and angle around every curve of the road. Some hills were barren moonscapes with piles of cut peat drying in the sunshine. Some were lushly green, dotted with sheep. Some were granite-studded. I lay down in the sunshine on one with thick, spongy vegetation — a perfect natural mattress! — and napped.

Sunburned in Ireland? It’s possible.

Today, as I write this from Doherty’s, a Dungloe restaurant, it’s cool and rainy. A rest day. It’s tempting to rush out every day and see moremoremoremoremore. But we’re a little overwhelmed by the beauty we see here and want time to just rest, read and savor it before our final week back in Dublin.

Jose went to the local barber, ex-boxer Patrick Quinn. His haircut was 5 euros.

Jose went to the local barber, ex-boxer Patrick Quinn. His haircut was 5 euros.

Vertigo, schmertigo...

Vertigo, schmertigo…

Three weeks in Ireland — the first few days…

In beauty, cities, culture, travel on June 21, 2015 at 8:45 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_0062

Silence. Wind. Birdsong.

The tang of burning coal. A whiff of the Atlantic.

The fuchsia of hollyhock and heather and the brilliant yellow of gorse and buttercup.

Piles of peat, cut up and laid out in rows to dry before burning for fuel.

This is my fifth visit to Ireland, the first for my American-born husband. My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in Rathmullan, County Donegal whose son emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where my father and I were born.

Hence, back to Donegal!

We’re now in a rented cottage in Dungloe, Co. Donegal, the furthest northwest one can get in Ireland one can go; I found it through a quick Google search and hoped for the best. Then we’ll be back to Dublin for another week, with a likely trip north to Belfast to see the Titanic Museum and maybe a Game of Thrones location tour.

We love our new home for the next week: It is totally silent, filled with light thanks to its multiple skylights, and with clear views for miles across the inlets and hills. Custom-built for a local businesswoman and architect-designed, it’s simple, clean and modern, even with its gorgeous stone exterior.

We flew Aer Lingus  into Dublin on Bloomsday, June 16, and spent four nights with friends in Rathmines, a lovely residential neighborhood a mere four tram stops from St. Stephen’s Green, the heart of the city.

I wandered around to get oriented, too tired and jet-lagged to take in official sights. We enjoyed a meal out at Peperina, a neighborhood bistro and a drink at a local pub — just in time to watch a race from Royal Ascot on television. I had a fantastic meal at Avoca, a cafe/shop in Dublin, scored a great pair of suede sneakers and we drove the 4 hours north to Donegal.

There’s so much light! In Dublin there was still light in the sky at 11:45 pm, fully sunlit by 5:00 a.m. — here, further north, there’s even some light in the sky at 3:30 a.m. and it’s fully bright by 4:00 a.m.

While in the north we plan to: visit Rathmullan and Letterkenny, drive around the headlands, visit a few local islands, listen to traditional music, eat some lobster. I’m also hoping to get an Irish-language tutor for an afternoon while we’re in the heart of the Gaeltacht, those few remaining parts of Ireland where most people speak Irish and many road signs are only in Irish.

It’s a gorgeous-sounding language and I’d be thrilled to learn a bit of it.

Here are some photos of our trip, so far; with no phone or Internet access at the cottage, we have to head to a pub for that. Perfect!

From inside a terrific local seafood restaurant, The Lobster Pot, in Burtonport, Co. Donegal, The Lobster Pot, owned by a Minnesota emigre

From inside a terrific local seafood restaurant, The Lobster Pot, in Burtonport, Co. Donegal, owned by a Minnesota emigre

Along a local walkway -- the site of a former railway

Along a local walkway — the site of a former railway

The view from across the road. Can't walk down to the sea very far -- thorns and bog!

The view from across the road. Can’t walk down to the sea very far — thorns and bog!

The cottage, 3 bedrooms, great views

The cottage, 3 bedrooms, great views

Jose gazing out the window of our rented cottage

Jose gazing out the window of our rented cottage

I've never heard of a washed rooster -- Irish potatoes on sale in Dublin

I’ve never heard of a washed rooster — Irish potatoes on sale in Dublin

The range of shawls, sweaters, caps -- in the most gorgeous colors! These are shawls in Avoca, a Dublin shop

The range of shawls, sweaters, caps — in the most gorgeous colors! These are shawls in Avoca, a Dublin shop

Interior of the International Bar, Dublin

Interior of the International Bar, Dublin

A serious Dublin dive bar, founded in 1833, where my bar-mate offered me a quarter of his roast beef sandwich (Delicious!)

A serious Dublin dive bar, founded in 1833, where my bar-mate offered me a quarter of his roast beef sandwich (Delicious!)

A Dublin doorway

A Dublin doorway

My one-way ticket, 2 euros, 20. The fun bit? The voice telling riders to take their ticket and their change -- and announcing every tram stop in English and Irish -- is that of my Dublin friend, a career broadcaster

My one-way ticket, 2 euros, 20. The fun bit? The voice telling riders to take their ticket and their change — and announcing every tram stop in English and Irish — is that of my Dublin friend, a career broadcaster

The Luas -- a two-line tram system running through Dublib; Luas means

The Luas — a two-line tram system running through Dublin; Luas means “speed” in Irish

A question of trust

In aging, behavior, business, cars, Crime, culture, design, family, journalism, life, love on June 17, 2015 at 11:38 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

We can’t survive without it.

I’m writing this from a friend’s home in Dublin, where we arrived last night from New York.

This week, five broken-hearted sets of Dublin parents will fly to California to collect the bodies of their young adult children, all of whom died when an apartment balcony they were standing on suddenly fell in Berkeley; all five of them were visiting on work visas. A sixth, who lived locally, also died, and seven other students were injured.

It is, of course, front-page news in today’s Irish Times.

I’m a nervous flyer. I love to travel and have been to 39 countries so far; this is my fifth visit to Ireland. But every time I step into an aircraft, I’m fighting anxiety, no matter how annoyed this makes me. When, which is inevitable, we hit turbulence, it’s a battle for me to stay calm — to trust the pillots’ skill and experience, the careful work of the mechanics who maintain aircraft and the plane itself, built to withstand much stronger forces than I’d like to experience.

I've lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

I’ve lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

It’s all based on trust.

Yet, every day, our trust — in authority, in material safety, in the food and drink we consume — is tested:

An enormous recall of Takata-made airbags, whose explosion have killed 3 people and injured 139

— The bridge crossing the Hudson River where I live is so old (now being re-built), it’s been called the “hold your breath” bridge for years

— Those recently killed on a Chinese ferry and the young students lost on a Korean ship

— The disappearance of MH 370 and the deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 9525 by a deranged young pilot who had, somehow, passed multiple medical tests

— Recalls of contaminated food and drink, like the Blue Bell ice cream that killed three people and put seven others into the hospital.

Everything we touch, every interaction, relies on our ability to trust one another to some degree:

That the elevator will ride smoothly and safely; that the meal we order won’t be prepared by contaminated hands; that our surgeon is sober, skilled and well-trained; that our mechanic isn’t lying when he tells us our vehicle needs extensive, expensive repairs.

Friendship relies on honesty and loyalty. So does a healthy marriage; if you can’t trust your own partner or spouse, who can you rely on? Which is why adultery is such a devastating blow — you choose your own family and it falls to pieces.

Teachers trust their students to do the work and not plagiarize or cheat. Students trust their teachers to be fair, smart, helpful and wise. Both of them have to trust in the authority of a system that more often privileges test scores or tuition fees over the needs of either group.

And yet we also bring a widely disparate set of hopes and expectations to the table. Some students lie. Some teachers are incompetent. Some surgeons gown up while drunk or high. Nurses can’t or won’t rat them out — risking patients’ lives. (As someone who’s had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, it’s an issue I’ve had to consider personally.)

Anyone looking for love, certainly when dating people they don’t know well through mutual friends or family, takes a risk.

I spent a few months in 1998 being wooed fervently by a charming, witty man I met through a personal ad. He kept proposing marriage to me — until the day he opened my mail, activated my credit card, forged signature and started using my cards — i.e. committing multiple felonies. When I confronted him, his three little words shifted from “I love you” to a chilling, well-practiced “It’s not provable.”

That certainly shifted my notions of who looks, sounds and is trustworthy. It also deeply shook my confidence in my own choices about what signals of trustworthiness are real and which are not.

The New York Times newsroom...without trust in its product, we would have no readers

The New York Times newsroom…without trust in its product, we would have no readers

As a career journalist, my entire reputation relies on my editors’ trust in me: to vet the sources I use for their veracity and authority, to meet my deadlines, to produce excellent work, to report accurately, to quote and attribute my sources properly.

When other writers screw up — and it happens a lot — all of us cringe and know we’ve lost even more of the public’s little trust in us.

The law is a blunt instrument when redressing broken trust — no amount of financial compensation will bring back a broken marriage, a dead child, a ruined career.

When, where and how much and in whom should we place our trust?

That’s the question I have yet to answer to my satisfaction.

You?

The ability to tolerate discomfort

In aging, behavior, business, culture, domestic life, education, journalism, life, work on June 8, 2015 at 5:26 pm

From The New York Times:

“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Dr. Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”

…And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.

“Students are seeking treatment, saying, ‘I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can’t cope,’” said Micky M. Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and head of Ohio State University’s counseling center.

I spent the past year teaching at a private college that charges $60,000 a year. It was an interesting experience to see how fragile and coddled some of these students were.

THAT was difficult

THAT was difficult

My husband and I are career journalists; his website is here; mine is here.

Maybe it’s the careers we chose — if you not debrouillard(e) — resourceful and resilient — you’ll hate the job and quickly leave the industry.

It’s likely the generation we grew up in.

Maybe it’s having survived three recessions in the past 20 years, times that forced many of us to shelve our dreams and say farewell to some others forever as our incomes dropped and good jobs disappeared.

I do know one thing.

If you are unable to tolerate discomfort, your life beyond college — no matter where you live, what you earn, what career you path you choose — you are going to be miserable.

So are your co-workers, bosses, husbands/wives/partners.

Life has sharp edges!

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When someone tells you that your work, or skills — social and/or professional — are weak or sub-standard or do not measure up, these are some of your choices:

— Disagree and ignore them

— Disagree but listen to their input for whatever lessons you can learn from it

— Acknowledge that their point of view is fair and listen to it carefully

— Cry

— Quit

— Never try that path of endeavor again

— Complain to a higher authority and push as hard as possible until they take your side

I have several friends who teach college ready to tear out their hair at the behaviors they see from students who refuse to take “no” for an answer when that “no” bumps up against their cherished self-image.

When life feels difficult and unfair and uncomfortable, here are some of your choices:

— Cry

— Yell at someone

— Run away

— Deal with it

— Use drugs or alcohol to numb your unpleasant feelings

— Talk to someone wiser and calmer, whether a friend, relative and/or therapist for their insights

– Change as much of the situation as possible

— Examine how and why your reaction to this challenge is making things even worse; as the Buddhist saying goes “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”

As readers of this blog know, I do not have children and never wanted to have children.

Drinks help!

Drinks help!

I do nurture and mentor about a dozen younger writers and photographers, one of whom just arrived in Australia for a two-month assignment there. Jose and I are happy to do it.

But they listen! They also have developed the requisite ego strength, even in their early 20s, to hear tough-if-loving feedback and use some of it without a shrug, hand-flap or quick dismissal of anything that challenges them.

I was still an undergraduate when I began selling my writing to national publications. At one of them, an editor was so harsh I’d end up in tears after a phone session with her.

But I learned a lot from her: how to write better, how to listen to criticism (even painful!), how to maintain a calm and professional demeanor. That growing (up) wasn’t going to be all puppies and rainbows.

Decades later, she’s still reading and admiring my work. That’s hard-won and well-valued in my world.

I wish every new graduate the best of luck as they move into the larger world of commuting, low-level drudgery, long hours, too-little money for too-much work.

More than anything, though, I wish them the resilience they most need — not just a shiny new degree or a stellar GPA — to thrive in the decades ahead.

Discomfort isn’t fatal.

A small, happy life

In beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, love, women, work on June 2, 2015 at 12:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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From The New York Times:

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

Columnist David Brooks describes this idea in his recent column, expressing a Timesian surprise at one man’s joy in his garden:

This scale of purpose is not for everyone.

What makes people happy?

There's a simple pleasure!

There’s a simple pleasure!

Not just having the newest-shiniest-costliest thing.

Nor the most well-paid powerful job.

Nor a private jet or three nannies and a $50 m apartment — which, believe me, when you live anywhere near New York City starts to seem somehow normal.

When I see an ad for a home, a house or an apartment, costing less than $1 million, and think “Yeah, that’s a decent price” I know it’s time for a reality check.

If you grow up, as I and my half-siblings did, in a family who highly values achievement and professional success — as many do — it’s tough to celebrate smaller, quieter, less-public moments.

Our view

Our view

And social media, with its non-stop parade of others’ effortless and luxurious fabulousness, offers a terrifying hall of mirrors for the chronically insecure, like one writer I know who makes the vaunted six-figures and has two Ivy League degrees, which she easily dismisses. She still wrings her hands constantly about her value.

If you persist in clinging exclusively or primarily to the ladder of professional status, ever seeking more income, status, achievement and admiration, you’re doomed.

There’s never enough.

Nor does the larger culture of the United States, a place addicted to ever-more-feverish productivity, wealth and status, offer much encouragement to those of us who actually prefer a slower pace, the lower costs of a smaller home, an older vehicle, (only one! OMG), or none.

From a story about young women’s rising levels of anxiety in Glamour:

Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”

She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mind-set. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’

That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”

When more is never enough...

When more is never enough…

Anyone who reads this blog, or visits my website, can see that I’m a fairly ambitious, driven and productive writer — two non-fiction books, a Canadian National Magazine Award, 100+ freelance stories in The New York Times.

I’ve ticked enough boxes.

I know a woman who’s produced four children and four books in the space of a decade. And she has yet to hit 40. What on earth will she do to fill the next four decades of her frenetic life?

She’s obsessed with being productive. I admire her financial success and her love of parenting but I don’t wish to emulate her life or its choices.

I see the insane stress so many people feel — not surprising in an era of stagnant wages, record student debt and a shaky economy in many sectors. How much work is too much? How much is enough?

It is one of the few benefits of being decades into a career and having lived frugally; we don’t face the same pressures as some people I know, certainly those in their 20s, 30s and 40s juggling work/commute/kids/aging parents.

Fresh mint tea. And the time to enjoy it...

Fresh mint tea. And the time to enjoy it…

I’m writing this while sitting on our top-floor balcony, the only sounds that of birds and the wind in the leaves. We have stunning Hudson River views and sunsets that vary every day in their beauty.

I value taking time off, whenever possible.

I enjoy naps, whenever necessary.

I make time to meet friends face to face over a long, delicious meal or a walk instead of chasing yet another client.

I value our strong marriage.

I value our good health.

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I value our dear friends, people who welcome us into their homes in Dublin, Paris, Toronto, London, Maine, Arizona.

What we may lack in prestige/power and visible tokens of fiscal wealth we enjoy in abundance in other forms.

Sure I’d like to write a best-seller or win a fancy fellowship.

But my boxes are mostly ticked and, for now, I’m focusing on small(er) wins and pleasures.

For which I’m grateful.

How do you feel these days about your life?

Simple pleasures

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, travel on May 10, 2015 at 2:25 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of the past week’s small town pleasures have included:

Walking two blocks to a local cafe for breakfast

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The local variety store — owned by the same man for 31 years

Walking past heritage homes

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Boxes filled with penny candy — even if it’s now five cents a piece

IMG_20150509_081758498

Patting a gorgeous 11-week old puppy outside the pharmacy named Otis

Patting a huge white Bernese dog in the park named Sugar

Chatting to a stranger in the park and learning more about this town, where he was born, raised and now works

Saying hello to people walking and cycling past

Butter tarts!

This is a butter tart. Yum!

This is a butter tart. Yum!

The frogs’ singing from the backyard pond

Watching the robins and doves lining up — bird spa! — to bathe in the backyard pond

A cold beer and a bowl of peanuts

The best!

The best!

Reading a great new novel given to us in a stack of free books

Naps

More naps

Not driving

Tulips in the park across the street

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Washing cars in the driveway (and spraying Jose “by accident”)

Climbing the stairs (we live in an apartment)

Having to holler across the house to be heard (ditto)

A big backyard

Sitting on the verandah and staring into the sky

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Not needing to know what time it is

Beating Jose at Bananagrams

Being able to keep up with my freelance writing work even while sitting at the kitchen table in Canada

Blueberry pancakes for breakfast

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The haunting sound of passing train whistles

Meeting our old friends for a long lunch

The warm sun on bare skin after an endless and bitter winter

A Canadian farmer’s market specialty (which Americans call Canadian bacon)

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Tossing a softball in the park at sunset

Silence

Having the maitre d’ at a local restaurant remember me from our last visit

Hitting a big bucket of balls while listening to a nearby woodpecker

Finding a 1960 black Ford pick-up truck for sale

$8,000 Canadian or best offer...

$8,000 Canadian or best offer…

What are your skills really worth?

In behavior, business, culture, food, life, news, work on May 7, 2015 at 12:04 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

In a time when American CEOs now, unapologetically, take home 354 times the wage of their average worker, what we earn is finally becoming a larger part of the national conversation.

From this week’s New York Times, an op-ed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the minimum wage a national law in 1938. Years earlier, he said, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” But minimum wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living.

Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry. Fast-food C.E.O.s are among the highest-paid corporate executives. The average fast-food C.E.O. made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple the average from 2000 (adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, entry-level food-service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year, which at a 40-hour week amounts to $8.50 an hour. Nationally, wages for fast-food workers have increased 0.3 percent since 2000 (again, adjusting for inflation).

Many assume that fast-food workers are mostly teenagers who want to earn extra spending money. On the contrary, 73 percent are women, 70 percent are over the age of 20, and more than two-thirds are raising a child and are the primary wage earners in their family.

I spent 2.5 years — part-time, one shift a week except for holidays — as a retail sales associate for The North Face, selling $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, CT headed out to Aspen for their vacation. I made, from 2007 to 2009, $11/hour, a wage some in the U.S. — whose federal minimum is still a paltry $7.25/hour — consider munificent.

I did it because I needed a steady income, even a small one, in the depths of the Great Recession. It was, to say the least, eye-opening, to work for low wages and see how little they bought.

I wrote my last book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, about this life, including many interviews with other such workers across the U.S.

malled cover HIGH

Many customer-facing jobs, often in retail, food service and hospitality, are deemed “low skill.”

Which — as anyone who’s done one of them — knows is utter bullshit.

Some of the many skills you need to do this work include:

— patience

— excellent listener

— empathy for/with your customer and their needs

— the ability to quickly pick up, retain and use information

calm under pressure

— multi-tasking gracefully and competently

— physical stamina

— emotional stamina

— how to initiate and close a sale

Have you heard the phrase “emotional labor”?

It’s the expectation of customers and management that, even if your feet are swollen and painful from eight hours standing/running/walking without a break, even if you feel ill or nauseated or had to re-open the store barely hours after you closed it (and cleaned the toilets) — you’re happy. Smiling. Perky.

Riiiiiiiight.

One of the least amusing aspects of working through the holiday season, when wealthy shoppers in our affluent suburban New York mall entered the store already laden with pontoons of loaded shopping bags, was being told to be nice(r.)

All the time.

This, as you face long lines of shoppers who, by the time you can help them — (stores cut labor costs by under-staffing, even during busy periods), are pissed off and taking it out on you — not the staffing/scheduling software your company paid millions for.

That’s emotional labor.

Malled's Chinese version

Malled’s Chinese version

There’s a current trend in the U.S. — where labor union participation remains at an all-time low despite record corporate profits and stagnant wages — called Fight for 15.

The movement wants a wage of $15/hour for low-wage work; a day or week’s wages for workers in places like India, China, Nicaragua — where they make most of the clothes we sell and wear.

But it’s still very little income if you live in a large American city.

I’m forever fascinated by what people are paid and how they — and others — value their skills. Most of us have to work to earn a living, and many of us will do so for decades. Most of our lives will be spent earning an income for the skills we have acquired.

Time is money!

Time is money!

As a fulltime freelancer, knowing how to negotiate is one of my top skills.

It’s also a skill many women fail to acquire or practice — women offered a salary far too often say “Thanks!”, grab it and begin.

Men, statistically, have been shown to negotiate for more. They also get it.

You don’t ask — you don’t get.

One of my favorite books on this issue is called Women Don’t Ask, and I highly recommend it.

I grew up in a family of freelancers and have also spent much of my journalism career without a paycheck.

I know that negotiating is every bit as essential to my income as knowing how to write well and meet a deadline.

One example: a major magazine assigns me a story, the fee $2,400. The “kill fee”, i.e. if the story cannot be used, was $600 — a loss of three-quarters of my income. Nope, I said. They raised it to $1,000. The story, for reasons completely beyond my control, couldn’t be used; they offered me more than the agreed-upon fee.

But what if I hadn’t asked for more in the first place?

I also network, every single day, with other writers at my level; only by sharing information, candidly, can we know what people are actually paying — and not just jump at the first lowball offer.

You also need to be extremely honest with yourself and know what the current marketplace most values in your industry; if your skills are weak or out-of-date, you’re not going to be able to effectively compete and negotiate for more.

It’s scary to operate without a safety net, the security of a paycheck and paid sick days. But I thrive on the freedom to set my own hours, to work when and where and for whom and for how long I deem necessary. I set my own hourly rate — $225/hour with a one-hour minimum for coaching and consulting — and work only with clients I know will help me meet my goals, both intellectual and financial.

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It’s a sadly American mindset, in a nation addicted to freedom and liberty, to see how dismissively many workers are treated and how little they’re paid.

And how many put up with it.

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