Inertia…or action?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sidewalk closed, use other sidewalk…

 

From The New York Times:

Habits are powerful. We persist with many of them because we tend to give undue emphasis to the present. Trying something new can be painful: I might not like what I get and must forgo something I already enjoy. That cost is immediate, while any benefits — even if they are large — will be enjoyed in a future that feels abstract and distant. Yes, I want to know what else my favorite restaurant does well, but today I just want my favorite dish.

Overconfidence also holds us back. I am unduly certain in my guesses of what the alternatives will be like, even though I haven’t tried them.

Finally, many so-called choices are not really choices at all.

I finally hit bottom on two issues this week, and finally acted to try and deal with them, instead of just stewing and whining.

I live in a town north of New York City, whose main street is increasingly jammed with traffic, including 18-wheel trucks. Pedestrians have been struck and injured while in the crosswalks, which is illegal.

It’s getting worse and worse and worse.

The other day, I watched, enraged, as two drivers, in broad daylight, once more drove right through the crosswalk as I was crossing — and saw me looking right at them.

I gave them both the middle finger and went directly to the police station where I filed an official request for how many summons they issued in 2017 for this violation. (My guess? Fewer than a dozen.)

To my delighted surprise, the chief of police called me the next day and we discussed the 60 (!) summons they’d issued and how to potentially reduce the problem. I was so glad I’d done something.

I also called a friend in Canada to ask his advice and help potentially finding me and my husband full-time staff jobs there — because Canadian residents don’t have to pay for healthcare.

That alone would save us $2,000 every month.

I left Canada in 1988 and have no burning desire to re-patriate; we don’t want to sell our New York apartment and can’t rent it under co-op rules, which is a huge deterrent.

We love our town and region and would miss our life here.

I can return to Canada as a citizen, and we have yet to discover whether Jose has the right to live there with me, let alone work.

But we’re now so burdened with health insurance costs that are rising and rising and rising, and despite all our hard work, we feel increasingly frustrated and angry with our financial struggle.

We’re both full-time freelancers, living in a one bedroom apartment.

There’s no fat to cut.

 

Even if we choose to stay in New York, and we might, (and might have to), I already feel better for:

1) admitting these issues are driving me to my wits’ end rather than just bottling it up, as usual;

2) asking for help, which I’m always reluctant to do;

3) talking frankly with my husband about how badly this stress is affecting us individually and our marriage.

 

I was inspired by a New York Times column with the wise words:

 

Fury isn’t strategy

 

For me, 2018 is going to be a year of strategy and action.

 

How about you?

One is the loneliest number (sometimes!)

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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These few weeks can be a tough time for many people — thanks to social media and the mass media, we’re barraged with endless images of group cheer: parties, family togetherness, piles of presents under a decorated Christmas tree.

My husband and I now work as full-time freelancers, which means no office holiday parties for us, no matter how much profit our skills have added to many others’ bottom line. Even if you actually hate office parties, it’s important to have some social face time with the people you work with to help build those relationships.

The holidays can also be a time of intense loneliness — no matter how many people you know, if there’s no deep, growing intimacy with any of them, you might as well know no one.

For several friends, this year marks their first as a widow, and for one, her first in a nursing home far away from her home city, friends and lovely apartment.

From The New York Times:

People can feel lonely even when surrounded by lots of people, especially if the relationships are not emotionally rewarding. In fact, Dr. Carla Perissinotto and colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco reported in 2012 that most lonely individuals are married, live with others and are not clinically depressed.

“Being unmarried is a significant risk,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said, “but not all marriages are happy ones. We have to consider the quality of relationships, not simply their existence or quantity.”

As Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist and researcher in neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in an interview, “There is a correlation between loneliness and social interaction, but not in everyone. It may be simplistic to suggest to people who are lonely that they should try to interact more with others.”

I’ve struggled with loneliness for years since moving to the United States — despite having made good friends quickly in Toronto, Montreal and Paris.

I’m happiest deep in lively, long face to face conversation on a wide range of subjects, not merely texting.

I’m also just not much of a “joiner”, maybe because — being a professional observer as a journalist — I’m more at ease one-on-one, not in a group. And because I have to market my skills all the time to make a living,  the effort to get out and forge new friendships just really feels like more work.

I hate that very American thing of “Heyyyyyyy!” that’s outwardly “real friendly” — but often comes with no curiosity to go deeper and to nurture a more solid and enduring emotional and intellectual connection. In a culture focused, it seems, so relentlessly on economic survival, many “friendships” here (certainly in New York) are purely transactional — after you’ve each exhausted one another’s professional or social utility, that’s it.

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True friendship can also withstand less-sunny moments.

I recently spent an afternoon with a new-ish friend, (we met in June 2016), and I was snappish that day.

I was in terrible pain, between my arthritic knee and damaged right ankle.  A bitterly cold wind whipped through the canyons of downtown New York, where we met near the World Trade Center, a place that brings up too many awful 9/11 memories, so an area I usually avoid.

And the place we chose to meet was costly, noisy — and closed early, ruining our plans for a long, relaxed lunch.

I apologized the next day, fearful my horrible mood had hurt our friendship.

Thankfully, it had not.

 

Hoping that each of you — wherever you are this holiday season — are enjoying it with loved ones!

 

And, if you’ve got extra space in your home and at your holiday table, be sure to include someone who might be lonely, but too shy or proud to ask for an invitation.

Where do your deepest roots lie?

By Caitlin Kelly

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That most Canadian of foods…

 

If — like me — you’ve left behind the country where you were born and raised, let alone if you’ve moved many times domestically and/or internationally — you can end up feeling rootless.

I have three young female friends, ages 26 to 33, whose lives look like a game of Where’s Waldo? moving between Guam and Virginia and Luxembourg and Baltimore and Brussels and more, each thanks to their father’s work.

I also belong to a far-flung tribe of fellow journalists, web mavens and photographers, who are — to name only a few of them — in Madrid, Colombia, Berlin, London, Mexico City, California and Kabul, either permanently or on assignment.

I was born in Vancouver, lived in London ages two to five, Toronto five to 30, (with stints in Paris, Montreal and Cuernavaca, Mexico in those years), then New Hampshire and then, finally, New York, a suburban town north of Manhattan.

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Montreal

Despite living for decades in the U.S., I’m still, in some ways, not very American, clinging to some of my Canadian roots in terms of my political values, (the collective over the individual, single-payer healthcare, stronger unions) and also in shared cultural references that only fellow Canadians — here or there — can appreciate.

What is it that roots us deeply into a place?

What is it that keeps us there, for years, or a lifetime?

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Toronto, Ontario

 

Is it family?

Work?

Friends?

A political climate that best suits us?

A place — for me, Paris, where a year-long fellowship launched my career in earnest — that forever, and for the better, changed your trajectory?

Here’s a powerful and heartbreaking story about elderly Venezuelans — some born there, some who’ve lived there for decades after immigrating — now having to start a new life somewhere else, and to leave behind a country they love, but one in utter chaos.

 

Have You Re-Visited Your Childhood Home? What If It's Gone?
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

 

Marriages end.

Children grow up and leave.

Our parents die — freeing us to move anywhere. To live anywhere. To root anywhere.

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One of my Paris faves…

 

I’m headed back up to Canada for the third time in four months tomorrow, a 12-hour train ride. It’s a lot of travel in a short time, the first time, to Montreal, for work, but the second and third for pleasure, and to see friends.

I’ll be dog and house-sitting for a friend, someone I met when she worked in New York at the Canadian consulate and with whom I’ve stayed in touch.

I’ll mourn the deep cuts in my hometown newspaper and former employer, The Globe & Mail, and its weird new re-design.

I’ll savor some Canadian treats like butter tarts, (sort of like mincemeat, but better.)

I’ll ride the Red Rocket, aka the streetcar.

I’ll visit with friends I’ve known for decades, renewing deep ties and hearing their news.

Then I’ll get back on the train and head south again — for a brief few minutes suspended between my two countries on the bridge over the Niagara River, its spume just barely visible — and return to the United States.

It’s recently become a place I’m deeply ambivalent about, with rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, relentless gun violence, climate change denial and an administration determined to damage the lives of all but the wealthy.

My life is now neatly bisected, divided into two exact halves, between the nation of my birth and upbringing and the place I chose to move.

I wonder more and more these days about whether it’s time to uproot.

 

Where are your deepest roots and why?

Can you show me some I.D.?

By Caitlin Kelly

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We live in a lanyard culture.

Everyone’s got some sort of laminated badge hanging from a chain or a ribbon or clipped to their belt.

As a self-employed writer, my business cards, in two styles, and my website (which I had professionally designed for me) help to identify me to potential coaching students and clients.

 

But, as 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman wrote, I — like all of us — contain multitudes.

 

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I’m a wife

I’m Canadian

I’m an immigrant/expatriate

I’m an athlete

I’m a collector of antique and vintage objects

 

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I’m a photographer

I’m an obsessive listener of radio

I’m nominally Episcopalian/Anglican, although I haven’t attended church regularly now for almost two years

I’m a feminist

I’m heterosexual

I’m socially liberal

I’m a Francophile

 

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Budapest

 

 

I’m a traveler

I’m a mentor

I’m a teacher/coach

 

I didn’t even think (?!) to include my race (Caucasian) or gender (cis-female) because, to me, they’re not worth mentioning….which in itself is a sign of privilege.

I get it!

Nor do I mention my age because it’s a quick and unpleasant way to pigeonhole and minimize me and my value in a culture that fetishizes and rewards youth. I don’t identify with my age group at all, even if perhaps I should.

My husband, American-born, is Hispanic and, while he speaks no Spanish — nor, as friends once asked me, does he wear a guayabera or dance salsa (!) — he likely identifies most as a photographer and photo editor.

We have no children, so the default roles of parents/grandparents are not ours.

I’m endlessly fascinated by how people identify themselves, and which identities they choose to foreground and which they choose to hide or deemphasize.

We live in a time of competing and loudly shouted identities, when intersectional feminism often gets angry and frustrating, as women try (and often fail) to comprehend one another’s challenges.

We live in a time of extraordinary income inequality, where identifying with a particular socioeconomic class can be relatively meaningless when there are millionaires who consider themselves “poor” in comparison to those with billions. Those who who fly only first class looking longingly at those who only fly private.

We live in a time of deep political division, where civil conversations stop dead, or never even start, so identifying yourself with one camp or another can be dangerous.

 

How do you define yourself?

 

What are your primary identities and why?

 

Have they changed?

It’s the holidays! Why not set a pretty table?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

 

I love to entertain!

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.

 

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Summer breakfast on our New York balcony

 

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Fresh flowers — a must!

 

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:

 

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Restaurant Alexandre, Montreal. Marble table-top ringed with polished brass and cheerful striped bistro chairs

 

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So sorry I couldn’t get these home safely from Venice!

 

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I found the tablecloth in Prince Edward County, Ontario. The cup and saucer are early 19th century, English

 

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A collection of candlesticks — three from Mexico (pewter) and one silver-plate found at a flea market

 

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A vintage tablecloth scored in Maine

 

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We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

 

 

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A table set for one of our dinner parties

Making a larger table

By Caitlin Kelly

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Today in the U.S. is Thanksgiving, a huge holiday that the fortunate will spend with people they love and who have welcomed them into their homes with food and drink and kindness.

We are in suburban Maryland, just outside D.C., with a dear friend and her husband, a fellow journalist who stood in Toronto in September 2011 as our official wedding witness. We’ve visited them many times, but this year were grateful she was able to also welcome a younger friend of ours, a freelancer in D.C. whose mother died a few years ago and whose father lives far away.

We were also grateful recently in Ontario when our friends there welcomed my former sister-in-law to stay the night and dine with us — we live in a one-bedroom apartment, so we can welcome at most two people, (if Jose sleeps on the floor and I get the sofa and the couple get our bed.)

When people have room to spare, (and we always bring gifts and wine and pay for groceries and write thank-you notes!) it’s a blessing.

 

The opening of one’s home, heart and table are great gifts.

 

I’ve recently begun following a smart, tough Christian writer and pastor named John Pavlovitz, and his new book, A Bigger Table, brings the same spirit of generosity and openness in a time of deep and bitter social and political division.

I haven’t yet read his book, but I follow him on Twitter and like his voice and his point of view.

 

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Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe, solvent, healthy, well-loved and well-fed!

 

Pleasure matters

By Caitlin Kelly

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I was struck recently by a social media post by someone I know who works in a demanding healthcare specialty. She had treated herself to a fantastic day trip to a nearby natural wonder and a gorgeous splurge of a breakfast.

Alone.

What struck me most was the sense this was something, perhaps, to apologize for.

That taking —- making — time to care for herself and her soul was somehow suspect or self-indulgent.

I think being consistently kind to ourselves is essential and something too often overlooked or dismissed as silly, by others and worse, by ourselves. Women are so heavily socialized to take care of everyone else’s needs first and foremost that, when there’s a lack of time or money — and there often is — we get the short end of the stick.

I’m not someone who advocates self-indulgence or hedonism, (and who draws the line?) but I’m absolutely committed to what is now called self care.

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For me that’s everything from playing my beloved vinyl on a Sunday morning to making home-made meals I can enjoy during the week, with my husband and on my own.

I spend real money at our local florist, sometimes as much as $25 a week, to fill our apartment with blooms and greenery, whether fragrant eucalyptus or bright gerbera or the tiny purple orchids that come all the way from Thailand. To me, it’s an investment in daily joy and beauty.

I go to a spin class at the gym to burn calories, manage stress, to enjoy the music and see familiar faces. It offers me a low-key social life and human contact when I work alone at home, now 11 years into that isolating workstyle.

I make play dates with friends, meeting them face to face for a coffee or lunch or a concert or ballet performance, creating memories we can share years later. I went to a fantastic Iron & Wine concert this week at Town Hall with a dear pal and made her spit with laughter over Manhattans at the bar in Grand Central. Priceless!

I love to travel, so am always looking a few weeks and months ahead at where we might be able to afford to go, and for how long. It refreshes me, whether seeing old friends back in Toronto or meeting new ones, as I did this summer in Berlin and Zagreb.

I commit a few hours each week to my favorite television shows. (Poldark!)

And this year — for the first time in my life — I’m driving a brand-new car, a luxury vehicle we’ve leased. Despite my initial trepidation, it is sheer bliss: quiet, beautifully designed, with intelligent and helpful technology. Our other vehicle is 16 years old, dented and scraped and, no matter how much money we drop at the mechanic, always has the check engine light on; freedom from that anxiety alone is a form of self care for me now.

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It can feel weird, even guilt-inducing, to put yourself first, to say no, firmly (and mean it!) to others’ demands on your limited time and energy.

But without adding even the smallest pleasures to our days, and to our lives, we can end up stewing in resentment and self-denial.

No one really benefits from that.

How resilient are you?

By Caitlin Kelly

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I found this recent New York Times story interesting, which offers several specific tips on how to build your resilience:

Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience in children. But what about the grown-ups?

While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges.

I’ve long been interested in, and I most admire, people who are resilient — partly because if you’re not, life can end up morass of poor-me-why-me? misery.

Having said that, if you’re struggling with chronic illness and/or persistent poverty, let alone both, it’s damn hard to get out of bed in the morning with optimism.

I found this more recent NYT op-ed more interesting:

 

But a strong filter also creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks.

And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world.

And here’s a new, great list of helpful tips on how to build resilience from my friend and colleague Gwen Moran, writing in Fast Company magazine.

I have friends and family who’ve survived sexual abuse and assault, negligence, brutal and costly divorces, serious illnesses…It’s not just a matter of surviving, (which can be difficult and isolating enough!) but coming out the other side with some hope or optimism intact.

You have to somehow believe it’s going to get better, even with much current evidence to the contrary.

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I’ve written here a few times about some of the challenges I’ve faced, even as a relatively privileged white woman: mental illness and alcoholism in my family of origin, multiple family estrangements, job losses and protracted job searches, three recessions, multiple surgeries, divorce, criminal victimization.

But…it could always be worse.

I was struck, limping for a month through multiple European cities wearing a large and very visible brace on my right leg after re-injuring it on a bike ride in Berlin, how many people sympathized: “Oh, poor you!” or “You’re so brave!”

My choices? Stay and continue on, and limp, or leave in the middle of a cherished and otherwise wonderful vacation; popping painkillers and wearing my brace were not a big deal, and probably looked worse to others than it felt to me.

But bravery to me is a much deeper, and stronger quality.

 

You can only know really know how much you can handle once it’s thrown into your lap  — often without warning.

 

If you have health, friends and some savings, tough times are more bearable than if you’re ill, broke and lonely, when it can feel like the whole world is aligned against you.

I decided to marry my husband after he responded with grace, speed, decisiveness and generosity to a crisis within my family. His resilient and optimistic character revealed itself in ways that no movie date or romantic holiday could ever have shown me.

His resilience was one of — and still is — his most attractive qualities.

I value resilience highly, wary of people who spend their lives throwing pity parties, especially the otherwise privileged who are shocked! when difficulty strikes.

We have an example of resilience in our home, a weary little geranium plant who I’m always sure is about to kick the bucket at any minute. Instead it keeps on blossoming and blooming, even on its two scrawny stems.

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Do you value resilience in yourself and others?

 

How did you develop it?

Who’s your “missing person”?

By Caitlin Kelly

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There are a few people I always want to find again, to know how their lives turned out and if they’re happy and where they live and if they had kids or grandkids.

But two of them have — bizarrely in an age of media saturation — no digital footprints at all. One is a physician, so I guess I could track her down through a medical society but the other…no idea.

The former is someone I knew from our shared years at a Toronto boarding school, where we were both nerdy, although she was much more serious and quiet than I. The latter is a man I knew (and had a huge crush on) through high school, also in Toronto, who was extremely talented as an artist. We were, for a few years, close friends, but lost touch when we graduated.

A third person is a former journalism colleague who became a crusading lawyer, but, to my shock and dismay when I last searched for him on-line, had died prematurely.

They’re like ghosts for me, visions from my childhood, adolescence and 20s I’d like to reconnect with now.

Thanks to social media, some people I’d lost touch with have found me again and reconnected, like a childhood best friend and her two brothers, the eldest of whom took me to my first formal dance — where my cool vintage blue crochet dress split right down the back when the zipper broke halfway through the evening. He was a perfect gentleman and loaned me his jacket. But it was not the elegant impression I’d hoped to leave on him.

One of the reasons I hope to find some people from my past, selfishly,  is also to reconnect with our shared memories, those unique to us. And, as someone not close to my family, my friends really are much more the repository of my memories. Too often, they know me much better than my own mother, (whose care I left at 14, for good) and father, (whose care I left at 19, for good.) I have 3 step-siblings, but we never lived together and are not close.

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Half my life was spent in Canada and the second half in the United States, making me more eager to seek out those who “knew me when” — when I was young(er) and with whom I share specific memories no American has or could understand.

In London this past summer I met up again with a man I’d traveled with in Spain decades ago for two weeks after we met on a train station platform there. On that journey, I was 22, alone for four months moving across Europe, and already weary of fending off male advances.

I craved companionship and, bluntly, a male foil to keep the rest at bay.

He was smart, funny, good company. He was also handsome, with brilliant blue eyes, a student at Cambridge four years my junior. Much later he became a friend on Facebook, albeit one who never posted anything.

He asked me to go to lunch on this London visit, and I agreed, both curious and a little nervous; we’re both happily married so I knew this was innocent.

Like me, he is long partnered, had traveled widely and had no children.

 

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We went to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum, (which we loved), and our afternoon was easy and comfortable and as though no time at all had passed since we’d seen one another.

It was lovely.

I’m glad we found one another again.

 

Do you seek out people from your past with whom you’ve lost touch?

Do they seek you out?

 

Then what happened?

Don’t miss Montreal’s Atwater Market

By Caitlin Kelly

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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!

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Of course, this being Quebec, many of the signs are in French, but everyone will speak some English, if not fluently.

 

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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.

 

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Scary meringue ghosts for Halloween!

 

 

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Canada’s legendary food — poutine — cheese curds and gravy

 

 

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Three cheeses for $12.99

 

 

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An apple-grower’s van