Have you ever noticed how we now spend our lives in thrall not only to technology — but to dozens of its ruthlessly dictated speeds?
I thought of this when I visited The New York Times building, a stunning white-column-covered tower in midtown Manhattan.
First, like many lobbies now, you have to be buzzed through a set of metal gates by their security guards.
Then you choose a dedicated elevator that will tell you which floors it will take you to — but those doors close quickly! You have to pay close attention and move fast.
We do this every day now, accommodating our pace to that of computers, cellphones, (maybe even a landline, still!), escalators and elevators.
Crossing Manhattan’s busy streets means facing a timed light, even if you need to cross six or eight lanes of traffic. If, as I often do, you’re struggling with arthritis or an injury affecting your mobility, those seconds fly by.
Only if you live in a rural area or don’t spend much time in urban settings can you avoid this tyranny by tech.
I won’t romanticize the rural life — where some students are up in darkness to meet the school bus (more life-by-appointment) — or where farmers’ lives are dictated by the needs of their livestock or other animals.
I do often wonder what life was like in the pre-industrial 19th. century and before, before electricity and artificial light and kerosene and gas, when the only illumination was candles, often reflected in as many mirrors as possible.
When the only noise might be the ticking of a grandfather clock.
When our rhythms were primarily dictated by light and darkness, cold and warmth — not the 24/7 demands of a global economy where someone, somewhere can expect us to do something for them right away.
When a long journey consisted of stagecoach or carriage rides, punctuated with real rest stops and fresh horses.
Candle Hour has become a soul-level bulwark against so many different kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping not just out of my day but out of time itself. I shunt aside outrages and anxieties. I find the less conditional, more indomitable version of myself. It’s that version I send into my dreams.
At night, by candlelight, the world feels enduring, ancient and slow. To sit and stare at a candle is to drop through a portal to a time when firelight was the alpha and omega of our days. We are evolved for the task of living by candlelight and maladapted to living the way we live now. Studies have noted the disruptive effects of nighttime exposure to blue-spectrum light — the sort emanated by our devices — on the human circadian rhythm. The screens trick us into thinking we need to stay alert, because our brains register their wavelength as they would the approach of daylight. But light on the red end of the spectrum sends a much weaker signal. In the long era of fire and candlelight, our bodies were unconfused as they began to uncoil.
I love the writing of fellow Canadian Carl Honoré, whose career focuses on urging us all to slow down.
It’s also extremely popular, with tickets selling out months in advance.
I visited it years ago, and never forgot it. This week I was lucky enough to be able to have a quick group tour in the evening and it left me, once more, deeply moved.
I can’t show you any images as photography is not allowed.
You climb steep metal stairs into a brick building, constructed in 1863, and step into a narrow dark hallway with battered metal mailboxes set into the wall on the left-hand side.
The building stood empty from 1935 to 1988, so you’re stepping into a time capsule. The walls are cracked and the front wooden doors to each apartment still have their original panes of glass above them.
Inset into the front hallway walls are large oval paintings and bas-relief curlicues, attempts at elegance.
The steep stairs to the second floor have pressed metal treads and the banister is thick, smooth dark wood. A narrow hallway there offers one tiny public room containing a toilet — shared by all occupants of the floor’s four apartments.
We visited one apartment that had belonged to an Italian family, and which contained some of their personal belongings: a lace dresser scarf, photos, other objects.
It’s a stunning reminder what life was life for these newcomers, who left their hometowns and villages and cities many miles behind them, mostly from Europe.
They might have once enjoyed gorgeous, sweeping sunlit views of woods and farmland and fields and mountains — and now their two front windows faced east over a grimy, noisy, narrow city street lined with brick buildings in an unfamiliar city in a new country.
The apartments are very small: a front room with two windows; a middle room with a deep sink, a minuscule bathtub and a coal stove, with a window between the front room and kitchen to allow light to penetrate, and a small rear room.
The total square footage? Maybe 250 square feet, a space that held, at least, two adults and children, maybe more. (This is the size of my suburban New York living room, for context.)
No outdoor space beyond the steps — aka the stoop.
Thanks to simple, thin cotton curtains and other objects, the rooms feel as though their occupants have simply stepped out for a while — kitchen cupboards full, a checkers game on the kitchen table with its colored tablecloth, a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one wall.
It’s also a so different from the exquisite, costly objects on display in most museums, remnants mostly of the wealthiest lives and their rarified tastes. This is a museum of real life, as everyday working New Yorkers lived it.
The flooring is weathered linoleum designed to look like woven textiles and beneath that you can see weathered wooden floorboards.
To stand in that space is to feel intimately and viscerally what it must have been to leave everything behind except your hopes.
I’ve been coming to Washington since I was a child, since some cousins lived nearby whose father was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service.
I finally saw the inside of the White House in the year 2000 thanks to my husband, who served eight years in the White House Press Corps as a New York Times photographer — and even got us into the Oval Office for a quick peek.
As usual, I was a very bad tourist so my post won’t extol all the usual sights, but some more personal pleasures.
We started our Saturday at a D.C. legend, the bookstore Politics & Prose, which is a treasure!
We could have spent hundreds of dollars and many hours there; I was researching the competition for a potential book idea and picked up a great present for Jose. I loved dropping my pile at the information desk where they laid atop it a bookmark “Customer Shopping” to make sure they didn’t get re-shelved. The staff was plentiful and helpful, and we picked up Christmas cards as well.
Then I dropped into Goodwood, one of my favorite stores anywhere; picture a smaller, hipper indie version of the American chain Anthropologie, with a mix of well-priced vintage lighting, decorative accessories and furniture with great new clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories.
They had a pair of gggggggorgeous camel colored Prada knee-high boots for $165. If only they’d been my size! I scored a pair of burgundy patterned tights, another present for Jose, a black mohair sweater and a silk jacket. Splurge!
We met old friends for lunch at yet another D.C. institution, Clyde’s, and settled into a deep, comfortable booth to catch up — three photographers and a writer made for plenty of good stories and industry gossip. The service was excellent, the food delicious and the cocktails perfect. The interior, filled with paintings and enormous palm trees and dark wooden blinds filtering the November sunshine, offered a calm and pretty respite from holiday crowds.
I ate lunch, enjoyed a terrific gin & tonic, and wandered.
The best shopping? There are many great options, but check out The Opportunity Shop at the corner of P Street and Wisconsin Avenue, with two floors crammed with consignment goods. Because D.C. is a town full of affluent and well-traveled people, the merch is amazing and prices reasonable — everything from a fuchsia silk Moroccan caftan ($85) to Asian pottery to sterling silver cutlery to Waterford crystal to prints and rugs.
Best of all, the proceeds go to support 5,000 needy children in and around the city.
The area’s side streets are stunning, house after house from the early 1800s; in 1967 the neighborhood was designated a National Historic Landmark district and it was founded in 1751. If you love architecture as much as I do, make time to walk slowly and enjoy!
One of the great essayists is Pam Houston, a 55-year-old American, whose most recent story is a lovely paean to her Colorado ranch, the one she bought and paid for, alone, through her writing and teaching — hardly well-paid pursuits.
She’s a woman and a writer I admire, (and have never met), someone with a deep hunger for adventure and who has chosen, and savored, an unconventional life.
It’s hard for anybody to put their finger on the moment when life changes from being something that is nearly all in front of you to something that happened while your attention was elsewhere. I bought this ranch in 1993. I was 31, and it seems to me now that I knew practically nothing about anything. My first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, had just come out, and for the first time ever I had a little bit of money. When I say a little bit, I mean it, and yet it was more money than I had ever imagined having: $21,000. My agent said, “Don’t spend it all on hiking boots,” and I took her advice as seriously as any I have ever received.
I had no job, no place to live except my North Face VE 24 tent—which was my preferred housing anyhow—and nine-tenths of a Ph.D. All I knew about ownership was that it was good if all your belongings fit into the back of your vehicle, which in my case they did. A lemon yellow Toyota Corolla. Everything, including the dog.
The entire essay is a great read about how we find/make a home. Here’s a bit more:
I had no way to imagine, in that first moment of seeing it, that the view out the kitchen window—of the barn and the corral and the Divide behind it—would become the backdrop for the rest of my life. That I would take thousands of photographs of that same scene, in every kind of light, in every kind of weather. That I would write five more books (and counting) sitting at that kitchen table (never at my desk), looking, intermittently, out at that barn. That it would become the solace, for decades, for whatever ailed me, and that whenever it was threatened—and it would be threatened, by fire, flood, cellphone-tower installation, greedy housesitters, and careless drunks—I would fight for it as though I had cut down the trees and stripped the logs myself.
I feel a bit this way about my one-bedroom suburban apartment, bought at the same age as Pam and one, like her, I’ve stayed in since then.
Between September 1982 and June of 1989 I moved from Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire-New York. I had won a fellowship, had a great newspaper job, made new friends, took another newspaper job, found a man I wanted to marry and followed him from my native Canada to the U.S.
But it was a lot of moving and adjusting and I was worn out by it all. Anyone who’s moved around a lot, let alone changed countries a few times, knows it can be wearying.
We ended up here, my first husband and I, because he found a medical residency position nearby, and friends had suggested this as an attractive town. I knew nothing of New York state, nor the suburbs, having primarily lived in large cities — Toronto, Montreal, London and Paris.
My New York view, straight northwest up and over the Hudson River, is only now blocked in summer as lush treetops block my sight-line. But the view is spectacular in every season — with snow, fog, rainstorms sweeping downriver and enormous barges pushed by tugboats heading north.
A new, gorgeous bridge has just opened, spanning the river, as elegant as a Calatrava.
The walkway along our town’s reservoir
The apartment, on our building’s top floor, is generally quiet — on a curving, hilly residential street lined with ancient stone walls — and regular sounds are crickets, hawks overhead and leaves rustling. We even hear coyotes now.
The town has a large reservoir whose landmarks — if you can call them that — are three small black turtles sunning themselves on the rocks and a cormorant who spreads his wings to dry, and looks like an out-take from a 17th-century Japanese print.
On the eastern bank of the Hudson River, we have the prettiest commute possible to New York City, and the haunting sound of train whistles as Amtrak rockets back and forth to upstate, Vermont and Canada,
Our town has massively gentrified in the past decade or so, losing its two diners and its restaurant prices have gone crazy-high. Parking has become difficult to find.
But its combination of ethnicities and income levels, its handsome 19th century buildings and high-tech firms doing 21st century bio-engineering, make for an interesting mix.
I can be in midtown Manhattan within 30 to 40 minutes — or sit by the river here and watch the sunset; it’s a 5.5 hour drive to the Canadian border, and about the same distance to D.C., where we have good friends.
What our town, Tarrytown, NY, doesn’t have is any sort of interesting nightlife, or news-stands or much in the way of culture. But I save a fortune by not being tempted daily to spend money in a large city full of amusements and distractions.
I often wonder if or when we’ll move. We’re not able to rent our home, (a co-op with annoying house rules), so that’s a limiting factor.
My dream has been to move back to France, probably Paris, at least part-time. But we’ll see.
It’s not always easy to find a place that meets all your criteria: shared political ideals, a lovely landscape, enough good jobs, a decent climate, friendships, culture, ready access to the outdoors, quality medical care — and affordable housing.
And, these days, some protection from fire, hurricanes and flooding…
How about you?
What makes your home feel like the right place for you?
My hotel room on the 15th floor faced north, to Mount Royal — aka the Mountain. It’s really a very large hill, with a very large cross on top that glows white in the night, but a great landmark.
I used to fly kites there when I lived here at the age of 12 and took the bus along Sherbrooke Street — a major east-west thoroughfare — to school, a place that felt exotic and foreign to me because it was both Catholic (I’m not) and co-ed (I hadn’t shared a classroom with boys in four years.)
Half a block from my hotel is where I used to live, 3432 Peel Street, but that brownstone is long gone, replaced with a tall, new apartment tower.
Montreal is a city unlike any other, a mix of French chic and staid British elegance, of narrow weathered side streets and wide busy boulevards named for former politicians. One distinctive feature are the spiral or straight metal staircases in front of old three-story apartment buildings, which are hell to maneuver when they’re covered with snow and ice.
Street names reflect the linguistic mix: Peel, Mansfield, Greene, Drummond — and St. Laurent, St. Denis, Maisonneuve, Cote Ste. Catherine.
It’s always been a divided city, between the French and English, and at times deeply hostile. Signs, by law, must be in French. Everywhere you go, you’ll hear French being spoken or on restaurant and store playlists.
Sidewalk closed; use other sidewalk….a common sight there now!
I worked in Montreal as a reporter for the Gazette for 18 months, enough for me. The winter was brutally cold and two months longer than Toronto. (Two of my colleagues from the 80s are still at the paper, now in senior positions.)
I loved my enormous downtown apartment with a working fireplace and huge top-floor windows, but I hated that our building was broken into regularly and that shattered car window glass littered our block almost every morning.
On this visit, I met up with a younger friend at Beautys for brunch, (in business since 1942), and got there at 10:00 a.m., before the Sunday line formed outside. The food was good, but hurried, and we were out within an hour, meandering in afternoon sunshine.
We ended up at Else’s, a casual/funky restaurant named for the Norwegian woman who founded it and died, according to her bio on the back of the menu, in 2011. It’s quintessentially Montreal, tucked on a corner of a quiet side street, far away from bustling downtown where all the tourists go. Its round table-tops were each a painted work of art, signed, and covered with layers of clear protective gloss. We stayed for hours, watching low, slanting sunshine pierce the windows and hanging ferns.
The city’s side streets, full of old trees and flowers and narrow apartment buildings with lace-covered glass front doors — Duluth, Rachel, Roy, Prince-Arthur — remain some of my favorite places to wander.
Montreal, (which this visit had too many squeegee guys at the intersections, never a good sign), always has such a different vibe from bustling, self-important Toronto, where I grew up, and where ugly houses now easily command $1 million; In the Gazette this visit, I saw apartments for rent for less than $800, unimaginable in most major North American cities now.
I visited my favorite housewares shop, in business since 1975, Arthur Quentin (pronounced Arrr-Toor, Kahn-Tehn), on St. Denis, and bought a gorgeous burgundy Peugeot pepper grinder. Everything in the store is elegant, from heavy, thick linen tablecloths and tableware to baskets, aprons and every possible kitchen tool.
Downtown has many great early buildings with lovely architectural details —- this is the front door of Holt Renfrew, Canada’s top department store, in business since 1837
I went up to Laurier Ouest, a chic shopping strip frequented by the elegant French neighbors whose homes surround that area, Outremont. It has a great housewares store, (love those brightly colored tablecloths!) and MultiMags, one of best magazine stores I’ve ever seen anywhere, with great souvenirs, pens, cards and notebooks; (it has multiple branches.) A great restaurant, Lemeac, is there as well.
I savored a cocktail (OK, two) at one of my favorite places, the Ritz, where we used to dine every Friday evening the year I lived here with my mother. On our visit after 9/11, when hotel rates plunged enough we could afford to stay there, my husband and I noticed a group sitting near us at breakfast — Aerosmith!
Montreal is also a city of students, with McGill’s handsome limestone campus starting on Sherbrooke and climbing Mt. Royal from there; UQAM is just down the street and there’s also Concordia, (where I first taught journalism.)
Great reflections in the window of a tearoom on St. Denis — the words above the window say: Drink, Laugh and Eat
I’ve visited in glorious 70-degree sunshine — like this past week — and bitterly cold, snow-covered February.
It’s a fun, welcoming city in every season, with great food, cool bars, interesting shops, small/good museums and 375 years of history.
And 2016 saw more visitors than any year since 1967.
So grateful to stay with friends who live in an impossibly fab flat facing directly onto the Thames — as I write this, the only sounds are seagulls shrieking.
I took the bus a lot more this time than in previous visits, specifically the 188, (which terminates in elegant Russell Square, a block from the massive British Museum) and the C10 , which terminates in (!), the aptly-named Canada Water, (I’m Canadian.)
Traveling London by bus is fantastic for a few reasons:
— It’s a hectic, crowded city so buses get your weary body off busy streets
— The Tube has a lot of stairs and few escalators or elevators, and a lot of walking between stations and its many different lines, so if you’re tired or have mobility issues, the bus is much less tiring
— The views! The buses, as you likely know, are double-decker, so head upstairs, and if you’re lucky, grab the very front seat for amazing vistas of the city below
— Building details are much easier to see and photograph, as is the stunning skyline.
Here’s some of what I did on this visit (one of many) in London:
The Wallace Collection is a gob-smacking insight into accumulated, inter-generational aristocratic wealth, handed down from one marquess to another — room after room, (25 galleries in all), covered in jewel-colored damask silk — of paintings, sculptures, bronzes, armor, miniatures.
The collection is astonishing in its depth and breadth.
I loved their explanations of how armor was made and custom-fitted; you can even try on (!) some chain mail and helmets for a selfie.
I finally went to the British Museum, with a friend, to see a fantastic show about the later years — ages 60 to 90s — of one of my favorite artists, Hokusai; the show is on until August 18.
He’s one of the legendary Japanese woodblock artists and painters, whose image The Great Wave, remains instantly recognizable centuries later.
I loved this show, and appreciated the way his life was contextualized, with insightful quotes — in 1830 he was terrified of penury (what creative person can’t relate?!) — and the details about how he worked with and lived with his daughter, an accomplished artist in her own right.
Life in the late 1700s was every bit as challenging for this legendary artist as it still is today for so many of us.
Like most British museums, entrance to the collection — 8 million objects — is free.
I also dipped into the Victoria and Albert Museum, checking out their fantastic fashion display and some of their Islamic materials. It’s also huge, so plan accordingly.
While you might see the Tate, Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery, the Design Museum, the Imperial War Museum (whew!), the city also has smaller, more intimate spots. Two of my favorites are Freud’s house and Sir John Soane’s House.
If you end up on Oxford Street — filled with every major store imaginable — its crowds can easily overwhelm.
Duck instead into a narrow side street and you’ll find all sorts of lovely discoveries, like St. Christopher’s Place, filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. At Malini, I scored two terrific cotton cardigans (they came in every color) for 39 pounds each ($51 each.)
Try to make time to also check out quieter neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Primrose Hill — each of which have gorgeous architecture, parks, shops and restaurants.
I got to know Primrose Hill because a relative lives in the area, on a square with every house-front painted the delicious pastels of sugared almonds. Regent’s Park is spectacular, and has wonderful views of the city from wide green hills.
London is a city that rewards slow, focused, observant walking.
I love these places…this trip, I went to Bermondsey Square, (held only on Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a great bacon and egg sandwich-maker on-site). I snagged a 16th century fragment of ceramic found in the muddy banks of the Thames, thanks to a terrific practice called mudlarking.
I also found a great little Art Deco rhinestone-studded rocket ship, also for 10 pounds — about $13.00.
Arrive as early as possible — 7 .a.m. — and bring lots of cash.
My usual haunts are Camden Passage and Alfie’s, and I’ve even brought home ceramic platters and jugs; (bubble wrap! hand luggage!)
If you want to ask for a lower price, do it gently, very politely and delicately: “What’s your best on this?” is a decent phrase to use. Do not think that disparaging an item will reduce the price — when it just pisses off the person who chose it and set it out for sale.
Even if you don’t buy, some vendors can be friendly and incredibly knowledgeable — I learned a lot more about early sterling silver from one man at Bermondsey while looking at his teaspoons and about 15th. century ceramics from the vendor selling mudlark shards.
I’m now in Istria, the northernmost part of Croatia, only three hours by car from Venice. I’ve booked a week’s stay in the town of Rovinj, hoping to do a lot of nothing — no museums, no shopping, no walking with a bum knee along hot, crowded streets.
I really enjoyed my four days apiece in Budapest and Zagreb, my first visits to both. I’d definitely return to either one, but in spring or autumn.
One of the pleasures of this trip is seeing how different each city is from the next. Budapest is very much not Berlin; its buildings feel older, dirtier, more massive in scale and design.
I stayed with my best friend from University of Toronto, (who lives far from me in the interior of British Columbia), and her 24-year-old daughter in a rented one-bedroom flat in District VII, the former Jewish quarter, which is very lively and filled with bars and restaurants.
The company is called 7 Seasons, on Kiraly Street, (with a Metro stop within a two-minute walk.) I liked the flat very much — although the bedroom didn’t have air conditioning, which in this brutally hot summer, was unpleasant. It had a small balcony with table and chairs, and lots of natural light. facing a huge central courtyard; below were about five restaurants, including a fantastic Middle Eastern one.
Lots of fun shops, including vintage clothing and (!) endless “escape rooms”, whose attractiveness completely eludes me.
A great pleasure of Budapest is how affordable it is, for food, lodging and transport (except taxis!) A great disappointment for me was — because it’s so much more affordable than other European cities — it attracts roving/shouting/shrieking gangs of men and women who’ve flown in cheaply for their “hen” and “stag” do’s, (what North Americans call their bachelor or bachelorette parties.)
We visited the 99-year-old Gellert Baths, (about $20 for admission; bring your own bathing suit, cap and towel), and savored the warm waters of its two indoor thermal baths. I didn’t try the sauna or swimming pool but dipped my toes into the frigid cold bath.
The place is astounding and well worth a visit to spend a few hours lolling beneath its stained glass and mosaics.
Budapest’s Houses of Parliament
Loved our night cruise on the Danube, choosing a 10:00 p.m. boat so the sky would be completely dark. Like Paris and New York, Budapest is a city of bridges, each with its own history and character.
One hot afternoon I managed to walk for ages (!) in the opposite direction to my goal, passing every embassy on Andrassy Avenue, which terminates in Hero’s Square.
Desperately tired and thirsty, I staggered into a shady seat in a cafe…full of men smoking hookahs! I got chatting to a man beside me, about my age, and happily puffing away on his after-work treat. We had a great conversation: he was born in Lebanon, raised in Kuwait, studied to his PhD in India and had worked with NGOs in Africa before coming to IBM. Hussein was a sweetie and I so enjoyed meeting him.
So far, perhaps, my favorite city for its relaxed quality: Berlin’s blocks are very, very long (so tiring to navigate) and Budapest was just too full of bro’s.
Zagreb — with only 790,000 people, (to B and B’s 3 million or so) — felt just right.
I liked my hotel very much, The Palace, and my small room with its quiet garden view; (the street-side is busy with tram traffic.) Had a phenomenal massage in their wellness center for $60 — about half what it costs in New York.
Zagreb feels lived-in, in a good way. I was very struck by how clean the streets are, and its many green, flower-filled parks. No graffiti, at least not in the central areas — something Berlin is covered with.
The city’s many cafes were full of people actually talking and laughing with one another —- not staring grimly into laptops.
Food is a mix of Eastern European (lots of meat!), Italian and Balkan, with various kinds of cheese and cottage cheese I’d never seen before.
Loved the Dolac, the central daily farmer’s market that runs from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m, filled with fruit and vegetables and flowers and cheeses and nuts and lavender and local shoppers with their wheelie carts. The square is edged by cafes, so you can take a break as you head home laden with cherries!
Loved the city’s many blue trams, making it quick, easy and comfortable to get around.
Loved its architecture and ocher and yellow-painted walls.
Loved most the Upper Town, silent and breeze-blown, with a spectacular church. I visited two museums there and loved both — the atelier of Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most famous artist. His sculpture is exquisite, in marble and bronze and his home, built in the 1920s, a lovely space as well. If you like Rodin/Giacometti and/or the work of Diego Rivera, you’ll like this.
The Museum of Naive Art, a block away in Upper Town, is fantastic — filled with works on paper and many done on glass. A small museum, maybe four or five rooms, (a docent told me they have 1,900 items with only 75 on display), it’s really special. (Word of warning, though: both of these museums have steep narrow staircases to enter and to see everything in the Mestrovic site. Those with mobility issues might not be able to enjoy them.)
The city has 37 hotels — and 33 (!) hostels, making it an accessible place for all budgets.
I mostly loved seeing how people enjoy their city — guys playing badminton in the park, little girls rollerblading, people just sitting on the many pretty benches to chill out in the shade.
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.)
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.
— 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.
— 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
— 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.
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.
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.)
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:
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.”
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.
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,
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.
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.
I’ve been, so far, to all of my native Canada except Nunavut, PEI, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, to 38 of the 50 United States and 38 (soon to be 40) countries.
Here’s an alphabet of some favorites:
Andalusia is an absolute must-see, even though most people choose (rightly!) Madrid or Barcelona when first visiting Spain. I began my trip through Spain, (alone), in Huelva, arriving by train from Portugal, visiting Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Ronda. The region, which spans the entire south of Spain, is heavily influenced by Moorish design and architecture, from the Mezquita of Cordoba with its red and white stone arches to the white beauty of the Alhambra. Ronda is simply spectacular — a town set high upon a cliff.
I loved Auckland: great food, lovely setting, friendly people, easy access to countryside. New Zealand, a costly/long air journey to reach, is worth every penny. One of my happiest trips anywhere, ever.
Picture “Blade Runner”, with a river and amazing food. I spent much time on the narrow boats traveling up and down the Chao Phraya River, enjoying the breeze and watching people. The late Jim Thompson, whose textile company is still in business, has a house there, open to tourists. The city can feel crazy, but I loved it.
I spent 10 days in Copenhagen and could easily have stayed longer: compact, beautiful, set on the water. Not to mention Tivoli, its famous amusement park.
Corsica, of every place I’ve ever seen, remains one of the most breathtaking in its rugged, mountainous beauty. I traveled around the north by mo-ped, alone, inhaling the scent of sun-warmed maquis, its scrubby herbal underbrush. I loved everything about this French island, lesser known to North Americans than Europeans.
My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in Rathmullan, in this northwestern-most county of Ireland. The attendance records from his one-room schoolhouse include his record of bad behavior — with my grandfather scolded for “persistent talking.”
We rented a cottage in Dungloe and did day-trips around the county. It’s Ireland at its wildest, wind whipping in from the Atlantic, sheep grazing at the very edges of steep cliffs. I’ve been to Ireland five times, and this bit quickly became a favorite.
Just south of Montreal, a 90-minute drive, lie the gently rolling hills and small towns of L’Estrie or the Eastern Townships. We’ve been many times since 2001, staying every time (splurge!) at Manoir Hovey, a family-owned resort on Lake Massawippi. Intimate and elegant but not stuffy, perfect for a romantic or restful weekend.
I ended up in Fiji thanks to my peripatetic mother, who spent years traveling the world alone. Blue starfish! Cricket matches! Lush green landscapes!
I’ve been to this small funky college town in northern Arizona a few times, en route to the Grand Canyon. I stayed last time at the Monte Vista, built in 1927, and ate breakfast at the bar, watching a local cabbie have his first Bloody Mary at 8:00 a.m.
Gros Morne National Park/Grand Canyon/Grand Central Terminal
We still haven’t made it to Gros Morne, a UNESCO world heritage site, and one that looks like Norway — in Newfoundland — but it’s high on our list.
The Grand Canyon is everything you want or hope it will be: majestic, awe-inspiring, stunning. The best way to experience it is to hike deep into the canyon, (starting very early in the morning to avoid summer heat and carrying a lot of water), to truly appreciate its flora, fauna and silence.
GCT, (my station!), is truly a cathedral of commutation. Filled with great restaurants and shops, it’s a jewel of New York City with its star-studded turquoise arched ceiling.
My home of several decades. Visitors to New York City should set aside even one day to take the train, (Metro-North, a commuter railroad), north along the eastern edge of the Hudson River. It’s so beautiful! The western shore are steep rocky cliffs called the Palisades, the eastern edge a mix of New York’s second-largest city, Yonkers, and the “river towns”, small, historic villages set like beads on a string at the water’s edge, including mine, Tarrytown. Most have great restaurants and shops, and you can see Manhattan to the south, glittering like Oz. One of the most spectacular towns is quaint Cold Spring, where the river narrows dramatically and you can rent kayaks.
I spent only three days in Istanbul, while working, but it’s unlike any other city I’ve seen. Where else can you ferry between Europe and Asia? Its minarets and muezzins alone create a skyline/soundscape distinctive from anything Western. I spent an entire day in the Grand Bazaar sipping mint tea and looking at rugs.
I’ll be in Istria this summer, for the first time, really excited to explore a new-to-me part of the world; 89 percent of it lies in northern Croatia, where I’ll be visiting the towns of Rovinj and Bale. From there, it’s a quick trip northwest to Venice.
I couldn’t think of anywhere I’ve been yet that starts with J! But living in New York, this is one of our two major international airports, so it’s key to international air travel.
Key West/Ko Phi Phi
Key West, Florida, the southernmost point in the United States, is funky, offbeat and a great spot for a long weekend. No sandy beaches, but lots of fun bars and restaurants. Best of all — rent a bike or walk everywhere.
It’s been a long time since I landed on Ko Phi Phi, but it remains in my top five most indelible travel experiences. A two-hour boat ride from Krabi, in southern Thailand, Phi Phi was tiny and gorgeous — I hope it still is.
It can feel enormous and overwhelming, so take it slowly, neighborhood by neighborhood. Stroll the Thames. Have tea! Stop for a pint at a pub. Visit Primrose Hill for a great city view, and enjoy the shops and restaurants along Regent’s Park Road; PH is a lovely residential area with pastel-colored villas. Visit Hamley’s toy store and Liberty, possibly the prettiest retail store in the world. Visit Freud’s house and marvel at his odd office chair!
It’s everything you think — timeless, breathtaking, mysterious. Watching the sun rise over the Andes, light spilling into valley after valley after valley…
I love Maine and have been back many times. The coastline is rugged and beautiful, its small towns varied and interesting, Acadia National Park worth a visit. Blueberries, antiques, ocean and lobster — what’s not to like?
What Eden must have looked like. You reach it after descending for an hour of hairpin turns, and see animals spread out for miles. This stunning landscape lies in northern Tanzania; damned expensive to get to from almost anywhere, but worth every single penny.
Mexico, one of my favorite places; both the city and the state.
Regular readers here know how much I love Paris, where I lived at 25 in a student dorm in the 15th, and have returned to many times, usually renting a flat on the Ile St. Louis or in the Marais. In any season, (but especially fall), it’s a city that always rewards the flaneur/euse — the meandering explorer with no set agenda.
Especially (brrrrr!) mid-winter. Set high on a cliff above the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is a taste of Europe without crossing an ocean. Narrow, winding cobble-stoned streets, (treacherous when icy). Delicious French food. Some shopping. Have a drink at the bar of the elegant, classic Chateau Frontenac hotel.
I know, you expected Rome! I’m headed to this town in Istria/Northern Croatia, eager to explore its narrow, lovely cobble-stoned streets and deep sense of history. I’ve never been to Croatia and am so looking forward to it.
Savannah, Georgia is a perfect weekend getaway — charming, elegant, historic. Great food and shopping. The city is a series of small squares; earthier and less manicured than Charleston.
San Francisco…swoon. Small enough to feel manageable but large enough to offer a variety of museums, restaurants, great shopping and architecture. Sacramento Street, for sure. The Presidio. Drive out into Marin County, filled with perfect small towns and lush green hills.
Sintra is a resort town in Portugal, a day trip from Lisbon, that feels like a children’s book illustration — steep wooded hillsides and castles filled with glorious Portuguese tile, azulejos. Simply astounding.
New Mexico, (where my husband was born and raised) is one of the most beautiful states of the U.S. — the light, the landscapes, the mountains. Taos is a small town but feels like, and is, a place people actually live; (Santa Fe is gorgeous but expensive and touristy.)
I went to Tucson for work, and loved it. A small city with some great restaurants, an 18th century mission and (geek alert!) The Pima Air & Space Museum. I love aircraft — and what less likely place to see a MiG?
My hometown. Not the prettiest city, but great food, several very good museums and, my favorite, the Islands, reached by ferry within about 15 minutes, year-round. Set in the harbor, they offer a great view of the skyline at sunset, several cafes and bike rentals — and beaches. Check out Kensington Market (funky/vintage/ethnic foods) and St. Lawrence Market (huge, amazing.)
Maybe the best part of travel — heading into new places for new adventures.
Few cities have so spectacular a setting as Vancouver, my birthplace — with mountains to the east one side and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The local art gallery is small but has a great cafe. Take a day to enjoy Granville Island, with shops, artists, food markets and restaurants. Stanley Park is fantastic; rent a bike and do the circuit, allowing time for the most YVR of experiences, watching seaplanes landing and taking off.
All that you think — mysterious, crumbling, narrow alleyways, the enormous piazza of St. Mark’s Cathedral. One of my favorite spots is the studio of Spanish textile designer and inventor, Mariano Fortuny. I spent my 21st birthday here, alone, staying at the legendary Gritti Palace.
It’s easy to spend days here just visiting every one of its many museums and art galleries. But it’s also a city that rewards walking, to appreciate its low-slung, elegant layout, created by a Frenchman, Pierre L’Enfant, in 1791. Enjoy its smaller neighborhoods as well, and take the Metro — you’ll see the city’s unique mix of uniformed military, eager young interns with their badges and lanyards, students and government workers.
On my to-do list, on the Mexican Caribbean coast. I’ve been to Mexico many times, and love it, but not yet to that part of the country.
I’m going to cheat here and go with YUL — the airport code for Montreal. One of my favorites, a city I’ve lived in twice, as a child and as an adult. Summer offers the Jazz Festival and a comedy festival and winter is really cold and windy. But ohhhhh, the restaurants! The shopping! The city never disappoints. Small enough to scoot around by cab or public transit.
I’ve never been, but will be there this summer as part of my six-week journey through some of Europe.