First (10 day) visit to Berlin

By Caitlin Kelly

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The lobby of my hotel, the Savoy.

 

I’d heard so much about Berlin I wanted to give it some time, so it was the longest one-stop stay of my six-week journey through Europe.

I didn’t see all the official sights — it was very hot this week, and I have an arthritic right knee, so long days of walking in the heat were unappealing to me.

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I did visit the Holocaust Memorial, which is built on oddly, (I assume deliberately) undulating land, a huge mass of blocks on an unshaded corner. It is, as it’s meant to be, brutal and disorienting.

Loved the legendary Pergamon Museum, with spectacular Babylonian tiled murals and Islamic art.

Took an hour’s boat ride on the Spree, a great way to appreciate the city’s many bridges and some beautifully designed buildings.

Walked the Ku’damm, the city’s main shopping street.

Saw multiple stumble-stones, small incised brass markers amid the city’s cobblestones, reminders, mostly, of local Jews killed in the Holocaust, an ongoing project that began in 1992.

 

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Ate a very refined, delicious but spendy lunch (69 euros!) at Pauly Saal, which has a Michelin star.

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Loved lunch in the garden at Literaturhaus, a few blocks up the same street from my hotel.

Shopped at KaDeWe, a luxury department store that opened in 1907.

Marveled at Walter Konig bookstore, just one of many amazing Berlin bookshops, specializing in art, photography, architecture and design; I bought books twice here.

Ate sausages, drank beer.

Loved this cafe, a block from my hotel on Fasanenstrasse in Charlottenburg, and ate/drank there often; (they have wifi.)

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This cafe is amazing — with a stunning selection of coffee, tea and chocolate — on a quiet, shaded street in Charlottenburg, in the quieter, more staid part of the city.

Took lots and lots of photos, my favorite activity.

Some random impressions:

— It’s really hot!

To my surprise, (and I admit, discomfort and dismay), air conditioning is not much done here. My room, in a 60-year-old hotel, the Savoy, (which I love) gave me a small rotating fan on my first night and it’s been a godsend.

Stores, whose frigid interiors offer reliable relief in most North American cities, are no better, usually with one fan aimed at the poor staffer. A long day of walking on hot streets without much shade is enervating.

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— Parks! Lakes! Nature!

My favorite day here, and one of my happiest days anywhere, ever, was Sunday, when  — with thousands of others — I took public transit to Schlachtensee, a lake just outside the city limits. Berlin has many such lakes, clean and accessible, and this was the perfect place to rest, snooze, sunbathe, picnic and swim.

One guy near me showed up with an entire inflatable raft, which, un-inflated, he carried home in a massive blue Ikea shopping bag.

People were there in rowboats, paddle-boarding, on floats and rafts, of every age, from babies learning to walk to seniors. I was impressed with how well-behaved people were, even lying within a few feet of one another on the grass.

Tiergarten is simply amazing — a huge central park where you can sit by a lake, rent a rowboat, enjoy one of several beer gardens (serving very good food), picnic, wander, even stare at some of the animals next door in the Zoo.

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— Bicycles rule. Look out!!

Like Amsterdam, Berlin is a city of cyclists: ladies in pretty dresses (no helmet); men in elegant suits (no helmet) and many hapless tourists like me, who’ve rented a bike for the day for 12 euros. Locals go really fast and are pissed off when people like me (the rental bikes are sub-optimal) wobble or stop suddenly in a narrow and busy bike lane.

— It’s a massive city

City blocks here are often very long, so your map can be misleading.

— Safe, quick, clean public transit

It operates on the honor system, (with a 60 euro fine if you cheat and are caught). You buy a ticket, validate it and get on, with a two-hour limit for transfers. But (oddly?!), there are no conductors or station agents, so you better figure it all out for yourself.

— Anything goes

Lots of tattoos and half-naked people. Lots of suited businessmen. It’s a busy place, pop. 3 million, but with a relaxed attitude, a nice change from Paris, where elegance really matters.

— Great architecture, whether classic/baroque or starkly modern

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— Rudeness hinging on what-the-fuck?! aggressiveness

I wanted to love Berlin, and I liked it very much, enough to want to return, but holy shit, people can be shockingly mean! I’ve lived and worked in/near New York City for decades, but have rarely seen behavior with this kind of nasty edge there.

Be warned!

It even has an official name, Berliner Schnauze. Here’s an explanation of it from a local blog:

In New York City, it’s often said that the locals are actually quite friendly. Provincials who arrive to New York are the ones who insecurely perform the stereotypical New York sass. Being in the City, in the anonymity of the metropolis, is an opportunity to insult your fellow citizens indiscriminately, when they get in your way or you don’t like how they look at you. After you’ve exhausted your creative vocabulary, you can really feel like you belong. The line between “acting like a local” and la violence gratuite can be awfully thin. I sometimes wonder how many of those Berliners who give you sass aren’t from here at all, just like Claire Waldoff.

This leaves us with a number of aperçus: Berliner sass is a problem of historic proportions, insult masqueraded as humour (ok, I might just admit it’s funny), a commercial invention packaged as a local speciality in the 20s, a stereotype sold by the provincials to the capital, yet somehow linked to the city’s local dialect. Berliner Schnauze is a sham, but it bites you in the ass all the time.

Overall, I’m really glad I came and gave Berlin so much time.

I’ve made new friends and left plenty of things still to explore for next time, preferably some September, when it’s cooler and less crowded, to see more of it with Jose.

If you’ve never been, I recommend it highly!

Meeting Twitter/blog pals IRL

By Caitlin Kelly

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I began blogging because my then-agent insisted I create a social media presence to help sell my second book. I never wanted to tweet, but thought I’d better get with the program. Ditto for Instagram.

But I now enjoy them all.

I use social media, more than anything, to connect professionally and personally with people I find smart, interesting and civil.

 

The photo above was taken at a favorite Toronto cafe where, in March 2017, I finally met another writer, someone super-creative I’d admired from a distance, and who knew some people in common.

I only “knew” her from her Facebook posts and blog, but we had a great time. I later hired and paid her to coach me on how to better use social media for work, which she teaches at my alma mater, the University of Toronto.

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A blog meeting in Paris, January 2015. We had a great time!

This trip — most of it solo through seven European cities and six countries — has also finally given me a chance to meet some people I’ve only known through social media.

Several years ago, I started reading Small Dog Syndrome, intrigued by the worldly young woman who wrote it. We began by reading one another’s blogs, worked together (virtually) for a year, and finally met face to face only in January 2015 when I stepped off the Eurostar from Paris.

We sat and talked for so long at the train station her worried husband called to see if we were OK. We were indeed!

They generously hosted me — having just met — for a week(!) in their teeny London flat, and this month I was able to return the favor by hosting them for several nights at the Paris apartment we rented this trip.

It’s been a huge pleasure to get to know them both.

Now in Berlin, I’ve met three more social media pals, all of whom I’ve gotten to know through their blogs, some private emails and weekly Twitterchats focused on travel, like #trlt, #culturetrav and #travelskills.

One is an Irish woman who also works in journalism; here’s her blog. 

I met Kate and her fiance, and we spent the day talking and walking through a flea market and through Tiergarten, one of Berlin’s huge and fantastic parks, filled with brown bunnies, lakes with rowboats, beer gardens and lots of benches.

It felt immediately comfortable, as if we weren’t meeting face to face for the first time.

The other two people I met,  through weekly travel Twitterchats, are a travel blogger and — of all things — an archaeologist who works primarily on a Neolithic site in Turkey; I knew he and I were sympatico when we started (!) tweeting Rocky Horror Picture Show lyrics at one another across the Atlantic.

We all went out for lunch and had a fantastic time. Finally meeting someone face to face is always a bit of a blind date, so it requires optimism and openness. But, really, it’s just lunch!

I’ve done this now in several cities, and enjoyed every meeting.

 

Have you met some of your blog or Twitter followers in person?

 

How did it turn out?

 

Notes from the road

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.

A few notes, in transit:

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Crossing the Atlantic, England to Canada, age five or so…

The kindness of strangers

It’s an interesting experience, as a generally competent and independent adult, to be vulnerable, to need other people to pay attention to me when I need it — like when I got on the wrong train in Frankfurt and, re-directed by a kindly stranger, quickly de-trained.

When transport and restaurant and shop and hotel staff are helpful, even friendly, it matters so much more than when you’re at home, surrounded by the love of friends and family. I enjoy travel, and am happy to do it alone, but rudeness and indifference can sting without the emotional supports of the familiar.

Extra vigilance

I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a crowded corner cafe of Berlin’s Ku’damm, a major street, and a spot surely full of tourists like me — when I noticed a police motorbike speeding down the sidewalk opposite.

It was nothing serious, but it could have been.

This trip, I’m spending more time than ever before paying attention to my surroundings and how the people around me are behaving. Without my protective, savvy husband — (a former White House Press corps photographer who spent eight years watching the Secret Service protect the President and his family) — it’s all up to me.

Situational awareness matters now.

The humility of needing translation

I speak French, so Paris was easy. I don’t speak a word of German, (or Hungarian or Croatian or Italian.) Nor do I use apps or carry a pocket dictionary. It is humbling to rely on others’ knowledge, and their willingness to use it to help me.

I was at a gym here in Berlin trying to explain something, when a young man, clearly on his way to the office, stepped in: “Do you need help translating?”

I did. And was so grateful!

Sharing space

People may share tables here, and expect to do so. North Americans are more accustomed to lot of physical room, in public and in private.

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I love this crazy painting in my Berlin hotel, lobby, Hotel Savoy

 

Your memory isn’t my memory

Everyone has their favorite (or not!) memories of the places they’ve been and I’m constantly told to Do this! See that! by well-meaning friends.

But your memory of each place is shaped, as mine are, by many variables: who you were with, how old you were, your budget and tastes, the time of day and year, the weather, even the strength of your currency, in that moment.

We also may enjoy wholly different things!

I like to wander. I’m just not a box-ticking type of tourist, rushing to every must-see or trying every must-do.

One of my loveliest afternoons happened by walking a side street, slowly, and discovering one of Germany’s major auction houses, housed in a gorgeous architect-designed building from the late 1800s. I had a great chat with the woman at their front desk, a former Lufthansa flight attendant who got married — in all places — on Staten Island, New York.

That’s not an experience I could have planned, nor offered by any blog or guidebook.

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Sitting still is key

Travel is, for all its many pleasures, tiring. Your feet get sore and tired from walking. Your arms and shoulders get weary from dragging a backpack or suitcase. You get hungry and thirsty.

You need to think, to make notes, to just stare into the sky for a while.

You have chosen to stop working — and also just need to rest.

Most of my favorite memories are of sitting still for a while, even an hour at a time (!), watching the light shift and the people walking by, possibly sipping a pot of tea or a prosecco.

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There’s never enough champagne!

 

Taking photos is my greatest joy

I started my career as a photographer, so I love finding images to treasure and frame for our home. My husband gave me a gorgeous little Leica for my birthday and I’m making very good use of it!

Everything is visually interesting to me: light, shadows, foliage, the patterns on a bike or a dress.

I’m fascinated by how different my hotel’s street in Berlin — Fasanenstrasse — looks at all hours — the sky is light at 3:45 a.m. (!) and at 7:10 a.m. I suddenly noticed sharp sunlight briefly illuminating a fantastic stone carving in a doorway.

 

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Routine still matters

I found a gym in Berlin, took a spin class, lifted weights — and sweated happily. At home in New York, I’m at the gym two to three times every week and I miss it. I need to stay in shape.

Routine — although deadening when never broken — is also a little soothing when everything else around you is new.

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That little white bear in the very back? He’s along for the ride!

 

So does comfort

Yes, I travel with a very old, very small, very beloved stuffed bear.

And I’m fine with that.

Acquisition versus disposal

I rarely shop for anything at home beyond gas and groceries, and find much of what I really crave too expensive — and that which I can easily afford unappealing.

So I love to shop when I travel.

But I offload as I go; every post office sells stiff cardboard boxes and plastic packing.  I spent 38 euros ($42) this week in Berlin to mail three packages home, things I do want later but don’t need to want to drag around at the moment.

 

 

A June week in Paris

By Caitlin Kelly

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High above Paris — silence! Taken from a cab of the Ferris Wheel at Place de la Concorde

It’s 2.5 years since I was last here, in the depths of winter.

My husband Jose and I came for my birthday, and three friends joined us that evening, one from her home in London, her partner from visiting his parents in Sweden and a journalism colleague stationed here. Some had never met one another, and I had never met two of them, but it was a terrific evening.

We ate at this gorgeous restaurants in the Marais, Les Chouettes (The Owls.)

Two more friends — the author of Small Dog Syndrome blog and her husband — came the next day to share our rented two-bedroom flat.

I lived in Paris for a year when I was 25, on a journalism fellowship, so the city feels like home to me. I speak French and have been back many times since then, four times in the past decade.

The city is a feast in every way: great food, beautiful colors everywhere — flowers, doors, women’s clothing — millennia of history, gorgeous architecture, reams of culture, tremendous racial and ethnic diversity.

Most visitors spend their time in the 1st through 11th arrondissements — with possible visits to the quieter, chi-chi, residential 16th. (Balzac’s home is there) and the grittier 18th, 19th and 20th. The buses and subways are clean and efficient and many taxi drivers now speak English.

Some photos of our week:

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Jose planned a terrific Sunday jazz brunch at La Bellevilloise, a 100+ year-old building that’s been re-purposed into a cultural center in the funky 20th arrondissement (neighborhood), with great views of the city. The buffet style food was delicious, the music Django-esque, and the crowd a mix of all ages, tourists and Parisians.

I recommend it highly; you must make reservations!

The flat we’ve rented, from a journalism colleague of Jose’s, is in a trendy nabe, the Marais, (literally, as it once was, the swamp), an area filled with indie boutiques, bars and restaurants lining its narrow streets, with fantastic names like “the street of bad boys” and “the street of the white coats.”

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The view from our flat’s living room

Our rented flat is on the first floor at the end of a tree-filled cul-de-sac, so it’s blessedly silent at night.

My Paris isn’t typical.

I don’t feel compelled to fight the crowds and see all the official sights: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Tuilieries, the Eiffel Tower.

I treat it instead like an old, familiar friend, as one more big city I enjoy.

Some tourists stagger along with pontoons of shopping bags from Chanel and Vuitton and Hermes. Instead, I’ve bought everything here from eyeglasses to bathmats; the colors on offer are so distinctive and these things bring us daily pleasure at home for years afterward.

We have a few favorite restaurants, like this one, Les Fous de L’Ile, on the Ile St, Louis, (where we rented a flat for two previous visits) and love to try new ones.

You must have a boule of ice cream at Berthillon!

We had, of all things, a very good Thai meal at Au Petit Thai; reviews are somewhat mixed, but it was one the best and freshest Thai meals we’ve eaten anywhere.

(Restaurants here tend to be small and crowded, so lowering your voice is basic etiquette. Portions are also smaller than enormous American ones.)

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We attended a wine tasting, in English, here.

We tasted two whites and two reds, with matching types of cheese and baguette and water to help us not get too drunk and learned a lot.

Paris has changed, of course, since I’ve been coming here, and five new things I notice this time:

— people jogging in the streets in Spandex and Fitbits, (once unheard of)

— far fewer smokers, more vapers

— so many people speaking excellent English, happily, from cabbies to store clerks and restaurant staff.

— Everyone’s wearing “les baskets” — sneakers — and a good thing, too! This is a city that demands and rewards hours of walking, but ohhhh, your feet will get tired if you don’t wear comfortable and supportive shoes.

— This visit, too, I’m much more aware, all the time, of our surroundings and every possible egress; with terrorism attacks in various European cities, including the massacre here at the club Bataclan, you can’t be stupid and tune out. A policemen was attacked with a hammer outside Notre Dame on Tuesday.

We live in weird and frightening times. I came out of a department store to find a large crowd and a lot of security guards and thought…ohhhhh, shit. But it was only (!?) people waiting for some American actor/celebrity to show up; apparently Tom Cruise has been here filming the latest Mission Impossible.

On a more sober note, one thing you’ll notice here, if you pay attention and look at the doorways of residential buildings, is the number of signs and monuments to the men, women and children who died during  the Resistance and in WWII.

I saw this glass monument in the park next to Le Bon Marché, an elegant, high-end department store — steps away from a brightly-lit carousel filled with happy children

It honors two little girls who perished in Nazi death camps and I found it deeply moving,

It reads:

Arrested by the police of the Vichy (occupation) government, complicit with the Nazi occupiers, more than 11,000 children were deported from France between 1942 and 1944, and assassinated at Auschwitz because they were born Jewish. Several of them lived in Paris, in the 7th arrondissement and among those two “very little ones” who hadn’t even started attending school. 

As you pass by, read their name because your memory is their only resting place.

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A great joy of summer here is the huge amount of  sunlight. Paris is much further north than you might expect — 48.8 degrees north, (the Canadian border with the U.S.) — and the sun isn’t setting right now until 9:45 or later, so there’s a long, lovely dusk.

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We visited the Marché des Enfants Rouges (the market of red children, named for the uniforms worn by those in a nearby orphanage)go! It’s small, crowded and so much fun, bursting with food and flowers and many places to sit and eat. The oldest covered market in Paris, it was founded in 1628.

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Here’s a terrific list of places to eat — from classic bars like the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz (yes, we went!) to bakeries and chocolate shops.

Start your day with a tartine (bread, butter and jam), or a pain au chocolat or a croissant or a pain au raisin and an express — an espresso.  You’ll walk off the calories.

Above all, sloooooooow down.

Sit for a while in a cafe or beside the Seine, and savor the city’s street life, whether day or night.

 

May you enjoy every minute of my beloved city as much as I do!

 

11 reasons to travel

By Caitlin Kelly

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Toronto

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Washington, D.C.

Wheels up today!

I’m leaving, starting in Paris with Jose for my birthday, for six weeks in Europe, most of it spent alone and my longest break in 30 years — Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zagreb-Istria-Venice-London.

A few reasons to travel:

Meeting “the other”

Who’s “foreign” and why? What does it even mean to be a foreigner? What’s janteloven and how does it affect Scandinavian behavior? What’s a “bank holiday” and why do people look forward to it? Why do the Dutch keep their windows open and their interiors visible? What part of a Thai person’s body should you never touch?

We each live within a cultural and historical matrix affecting our choices, whether we realize it or not. Shedding that protective shell, even briefly, can be eye-opening — even life-changing.

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The Brooklyn Bridge, NYC

Becoming “the other”

Suddenly you’re the fish out of water, whose assumptions and beliefs can seem weird, even rude, where you’re the visitor.

Here’s a funny and revealing list of the things visitors to the United States find very odd indeed.

To slooooooow down and pay close attention to where you are

Turn off your phone! Put down that damn selfie-stick!

Instead, bring binoculars, a sketch book, a book to read. Sit on a rocky hilltop or by a waterfall or in an outdoor cafe. Sit still for an hour and be truly present.

Memories are the best souvenir and paying attention creates them.

Learning/testing your resilience and resourcefulness

It’s up to you to: read the map/menu/train station directions/find the hotel or hostel or apartment. It’s up to you to catch the right bus or subway, (a challenge if the language is Arabic or Chinese or Japanese or Cyrillic or Greek!) But the self-confidence it brings transfers nicely once you’re back on familiar soil.

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A cup of tea at the Ritz in London

Using/learning another language

Read the local paper or listen to radio and TV. Learn the phrases for “please” and “thank you” and “I need help.” Using the local language, if at all possible, is a basic show of respect, even if you blunder.

Realizing the value of other ways of thinking: political, economic, social, urban planning, healthcare

Americans, especially, have shockingly little knowledge of the world; with a huge Pacific Ocean to the West, the Atlantic to the east, simply getting out of the U.S. can mean a long, expensive flight. Nor are Americans taught much, if anything, about other countries and American exceptionalism can add a layer of potential arrogance and tone-deafness.

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Paris

Making new friends

Social media and the Internet offers us unprecedented opportunities to make new friends, literally worldwide. Thanks to blogging, my journalism work and Twitterchats, I’ll be meeting up with new and old friends this summer in London, Paris and Berlin, and hope to make a few more along the way.

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Americans call it Canadian bacon; we call it peameal!

Exploring new cultures

Through food, music, museums, galleries, architecture, parks and natural wonders. It’s easy to forget how essential other cultures have also been to the foundation of so much Western thought — French, Asian, Greek, Arabic, just to name a few.

Find out what a muffaletta and a pan bagnat have in common!

Gaining a deeper appreciation of history

I once stood in front of the magnificent marble facade of an Italian church with a Chinese friend who asked if we had such things in my country, Canada. No, I said — we didn’t even become a country separate from Great Britain until 1867.

Stand inside the ringing silence of the Grand Canyon or the African savannah or Australia’s Outback….and remember we’re mere blinks within millennia.

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The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York

Savoring nature’s silent beauty

So much travel is focused, as it should, on the great cities of the world. But there are so many stunning natural sites, from White Sands Monument in New Mexico, (actually silica), to the vast red deserts of Namibia and Morocco, the jungles of Central and South America and Africa, the rugged islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland and the U.S. and Canada…

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Cruit Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

Trying new activities

No bungee-jumping for me! But I’ve tried street food in Bangkok, chocolate-filled churros in Mexico City, sea-kayaking on Ko Phi Phi, horseback riding through the desert in Arizona. Even if it’s an activity you know, doing it in a wholly different environment is worth trying; I loved playing golf on Cruit Island in strong winds at the ocean’s edge — leaving my cheeks salty with sea-spray.

Looking for travel ideas or inspiration?

There are hundreds of travel blogs; one, written by a young Scottish friend — who met her American husband (of course!) while teaching English in China — is Stories My Suitcase Could Tell.

I also enjoy the sophisticated tips offered by a Canadian living in Paris, here.

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Galeries Lafayette, Paris

It’s a fantastic time to visit Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal.) The Canadian dollar is about 73 cents U.S. and it’s a gorgeous place, with much to see, from Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland (forever on my to-do list) to the spectacular Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island — at the opposite end of my enormous country.

I join weekly travel-focused Twitterchats, like #TRLT, #travelskills and #culturetrav. If you love travel, it’s a terrific way to learn a lot about the world and meet equally passionate fellow travelers.

Here’s a smart blog post with specific suggestions on how to save enough money to travel.

Feelings — and what to do with them

By Caitlin Kelly

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A box full of comforts…

Having them, acknowledging having them, processing them, talking about them, reflecting on them.

Sharing them.

Brrrrrr!

Several bloggers who reveal their painful and difficult emotions, (without becoming maudlin), are Anne Theriault, a Toronto mother of one who has written eloquently about her struggles with depression and anxiety at The Belle Jar and Gabe Burkhardt, whose new blog has described his battles with PTSD.

Ashana M. also blogs lucidly about hers, as does CandidKay, a single mother in Chicago.

Here’s a gorgeous essay about coming to terms with yourself.

It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.

Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.

I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.

I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.

No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.

My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.

As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.

She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.

We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.

It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?

I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.

When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.

I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.

Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.

I wonder if I ever will.

My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.

But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.

At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”

The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.

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Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!

I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.

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 Jose

Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.

A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.

I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.

How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?

Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?

Fleet Week (and a celebrity guest)!

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s an annual event that began in 1935 in San Diego — when active servicemen/women aboard Coast Guard, Navy and Marine vessels dock in a city and let us see what their life, and ship, is like. It’s also a reminder that Manhattan is an island, and a working harbor, its western edge lined with piers, (usually hosting gigantic cruise ships.)

Here’s a link to the 418-foot ship pictured above, of the U.S. Coast Guard.

And, if you’re in, near or visiting New York for the next week, here’s the website with all the details; it ends May 30.

It’s so cool each spring to see all the sailors fanning out across Manhattan in their pristine uniforms, some enjoying it for the first time, others on a repeated visit.

But I’d never gone aboard one of the vessels, some of them 600-foot-long warships that have patrolled the world’s most dangerous regions.

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This year — a huge thrill for me — I was invited by the Canadian consulate aboard a Canadian ship, the 181-foot HMCS Glace Bay, built in Halifax, for an event to celebrate Canada’s 150th. anniversary.

It was a brutal day of torrential rain, wind and cold, and we stood under a leaky (!) canopy on the gray metal deck. There was lovely finger food and Canadian cider, which helped.

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What an impressive crowd!

As you walked up the steep gangplank to board, a crew of white-uniformed officers stood to greet us and, when senior officers arrived, each was piped aboard with a three-tone whistle to alert us all to their presence.

There were generals, their chests ablaze with military honors. There was an FBI cyber-crime expert and the head of intelligence for the NYPD. I chatted with three Navy veterans, one a gunner, and with the aide to a Marine general and to a Canadian MP.

I’d never had the chance to speak to active servicemen; we traded notes on what it’s like to train at Quantico, (as I did some shooting there while researching my first book) and what it’s like to fend off pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

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It was deeply humbling to meet all these people whose job it is, whose vocation it is, to serve and protect us. Most of them had been in the service long enough to retire with full pension (after 20 years) but loved it so much they continue in their work.

That was a refreshing thing to hear, in an economy that’s so perilous for so many.

While Americans are more accustomed to seeing their military, and veterans in everyday life, it’s much less visible in Canada, so this really was a rare treat for me.

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Not to mention, to my surprise, a celebrity guest who came out, even on his birthday — actor and comedian Mike Myers. He lives here in New York, and moved to the States a year before I did, in 1988, from the same city of origin, Toronto. He showed me photos of his three daughters on his phone and it felt like chatting with an old friend.

That’s actually pretty Canadian.

Maybe because we come from a huge country with a small population (35.8 million) or our national innate reflex to remain modest, low-key and approachable. If he’d been cold or starchy, that would have been more of a shock than his genuine kindness to everyone he met that day.

We spoke for a while; his mom had served in the RCAF, in a role that was a family secret for decades.

I’m usually not a big celebrity geek, but he was so warm and down to earth, just another fellow Canadian proud to come out and celebrate with the rest of us.

What a fun day!

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When workers aren’t free

By Caitlin Kelly

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

This recent column in The New York Times hit home for me:

After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

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My greatest freedom — to take on amazing assignments, like working with WaterAid in Nicaragua in March 2014

Some things worth saying

By Caitlin Kelly

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Thank you!

I really appreciate what you did for me

I admire your strength

I love your sense of humor

I’m not sure how you do it — but good for you!

I don’t know how I’d get all this done without your help

You’re such a terrific friend

I love you

I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings

This is a tough assignment — so we’ll be sure you get the compensation you need for doing it

What can I do to help?

When can we get together?

Your teaching really pushed me — I learned a lot in your class

I enjoyed our time together

I’m so sorry for your loss

I made an error in judgment — I won’t let it happen again

How are you?

This must be a tough time for you

You did an amazing job on this project

What can I bring?

Sure, I can help — what time do you need me there?

You’re going through a rough time right now, but I’m here for you

Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow

Your resilience is an inspiration to me

I’m so glad we met

I’ll drive you to your appointment

I can take care of the kids this weekend

I’ll sit with you during chemo

What have you said recently to lift someone’s spirits?

What do you most need to hear right now?

Health care is a right, not a privilege

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you move to the United States from any nation with single-payer government-run healthcare, you might be gobsmacked by what you encounter here.

You’ll learn new words and phrases like:

“pre-existing condition”, “co-pay”, “annual deductible” and “usual and customary.”

If you get a full-time job with benefits, you will be mostly preoccupied with how much medical coverage it offers you and your family, at what cost, and with what amount of deductible — i.e. how much more money you have to shell out after already paying a monthly premium for what is supposed to be full coverage.

It’s a bizarre, byzantine way to handle healthcare, because it puts millions at risk, as anyone following the current, bitter political debates over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare), well knows.

If you work full-time for an employer who can afford to offer it, you’ll get health insurance through them, often heavily subsidized.

If not, welcome to free market capitalism!

My husband worked 31 years at The New York Times, as a photographer and photo editor. He retired from there, although we’re both still working. As a retired former staffer, he pays $400 a month for his health insurance. That, we can easily handle.

The company decided to save money by refusing this same subsidy to retirees’ spouses — so I pay $1,400 a month for the same plan. That’s $20,000 pre-tax I have to earn just to avoid medical bankruptcy — the single greatest cause of personal fiscal disaster in the U.S.

I’m a reporter, so as I debated choosing a much cheaper plan I queried the billing managers for two of our physicians. Both said: “Hell, no! If you like what you’ve got, keep it.”

They know better than anyone what a crazy and costly mess you can face if your cheap-o plan doesn’t cover something like — oh, you know –— the anesthesia for your four-hour surgery.

That surprise bill could be high enough to knock you out cold once more.

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My first steps with my new left hip, February 2012.

As an aging jock with orthopedic issues that have required multiple surgeries and a lot of physical therapy — the co-pays alone costing up to $60 a week — not having excellent coverage is a gamble I’m not willing to make.

 

As more and more Americans are forced into the “gig ecomomy”, i.e. self-employment or precarious, poorly-paid contract work, we’re forced into free-market pricing for our most precious possession — our health.

 

Yet I find it almost incomprehensible to read this, in the liberal New York Times:

When Representative Mo Brooks said it was unfair that healthy “people who lead good lives” should have to subsidize the insurance of unhealthier ones who presumably don’t, he bluntly raised an often unspoken question that runs through policy debates in Washington: Who deserves government aid and who does not?

Such proposals can be — and often are — couched in the language of economics, with advocates and critics calculating the efficacy of incentives, returns on investment and long-run savings. As Ben Carson, the Trump administration’s housing secretary, commented last week while touring publicly subsidized housing in Columbus, Ohio, “We are talking about incentivizing those who help themselves.”

But the judgment of who is deserving — as opposed to what is most effective — is at heart a moral one.

In pushing for repeal of the Affordable Care Act last week, Mr. Brooks, an Alabama Republican, suggested that people with pre-existing conditions deserved to pay higher premiums, because they had not “done things the right way.” That could include a cigarette smoker’s lung cancer — or a newborn’s congenital heart disease.

Couching this as “government aid” completely distorts the larger issue — are you really happy living in a country where you’re just fine — but millions of others aren’t?

This kind of self-righteous garbage, the “deserving”, makes me so angry.

Yes, those who live in a single-payer system do pay the costs of treating other people’s cancer (some are smokers!) and diabetes (some are obese!) and people who injure themselves while high or drunk or are torn to pieces by a dangerous, distracted driver.

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No one admires or wants to support stupid, careless behavioral choices.

But I’d rather know that everyone can get good care quickly than smugly snuggle into my personal bubble,  knowing for certain that others live in terror of losing their insurance or access to the drugs and care they need.

I grew up in Canada, to the age of 30, never once seeing or paying a medical bill. Nor have my parents, who still live there, in two different provinces, despite multiple surgeries and, for one, months of big-city hospital care.

I’m no fan of endless taxation. But a vast percentage of the U.S. federal budget goes to defense, waging endless wars against often undefeatable enemies.

And the outrageous rates I pay are giving health insurance executives’ massive salaries. I find that disgusting.

I believe healthcare is a right, not a rare privilege only granted to those who someone decides is “deserving.”