Shhhhhhhh! (the quest for silence)

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Next to attention, it’s becoming a rare and precious resource.

Complete silence.

No phones.

No airplanes or helicopters.

No drones.

No one yelling.

No motorized boats or snowmobiles.

No cars or trucks.

The irony?

I bet people in previous centuries had similar complaints — the clattering of horses’ hooves on cobblestones! The clamor of crowds in narrow urban alleys!

Here’s an interesting piece from The New York Times about one man’s quest for blessed silence in New Hampshire:

Connoisseurs of quiet say it is increasingly difficult, even in the wilderness, to escape the sounds of vehicles, industries, voices. A study published last year in the academic journal Science found that noise pollution was doubling sound levels in much of the nation’s conserved land, like national parks and areas preserved by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Noise that humans create can be annoying but also dangerous to animals who rely on hearing to seek their prey and avoid predators. “We’re really starting to understand the consequences of noise and the importance of natural sound,” said Rachel Buxton, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University who worked on the study.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience total silence — and it is profound and oddly disorienting. I once stood in a place so totally quiet — a friend’s enormous ranch in New Mexico — that I could hear myself digesting.

 

Ironically, there really are some spots in the city of Manhattan where you can enjoy near-silence, while my suburban street echoes almost constantly with birdsong, night-time coyotes (!), leaf-blowers and construction work.

What’s the quietest place you’ve ever been?

Dreaming of a house…

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1926, Maurice Vlaminck, lithograph; acquired at auction and now in our bedroom

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Blame it on journalism, an insecure business that lays people off every day and pays poorly.

Blame it on my insistence on living close to a major city, which spikes real estate prices; I lived for 18 months, (albeit pre-Internet and pretty broke), in a small rural town in 1988. It was a very poor fit, making me wary of being so far out again.

Blame it on a lifelong love for travel, blowing bucks on a trip to Paris instead of scrimping for a larger down-payment.

And, I admit, my aesthetic preferences for homes 100+ years old and my lack of carpentry/electrical skills also in play…

But I’ve never owned a house.

I re-arranged the artwork in our bedroom recently and noticed a subconscious pattern — a French lithograph from the 1920s; an anonymous oil found at a flea market and a watercolor bought at an antiques fair.

Each shows a house, surrounded by forest or land or near a river.

Not in a suburb.

Not in a city.

But a discrete dwelling with no immediate neighbors or nearby visual impediments.

A few other factors have made home ownership feel difficult-to-impossible — working freelance with a variable income makes mortgage lenders jumpy.

The serious responsibility of costly repairs — like a roof or boiler — is intimidating.

And, with no children, no real justifiable need for extra space, like multiple bedrooms or bathrooms.

There’s also no “Canadian dream” of home ownership and — unlike the U.S. whose policies make mortgage interest a tax deduction, making home ownership more appealing — Canadian banks usually insist upon a 30 percent down payment, not the 1 percent “liar loans” that got so many American home-buyers into terrible trouble in 2008.

And houses aren’t cheap!

The ones that are would require so much time, energy and renovation my heart sinks at the prospect — and we go off on vacation instead.

I lived in a house at 19, at home with my father and his girlfriend, later wife. It was white brick, two story, probably built in the 1920s or 30s, on a busy Toronto corner and facing a park.

I lived in a house in downtown Toronto, the top floor of a narrow Victorian home, then in a sorority house for a summer and then, my last Toronto home, rented the top two floors of a small house even as I lived alone.

But since then, I’ve shared hallways and a laundry room and adjacent walls — through which I can hear our neighbors’ laughter and conversations — in a six-story co-op (owned) apartment building in a suburb of New York City.

I like our life here — there’s a pool and Hudson River views and nice landscaping and I don’t have to shovel snow or clear gutters or mow a lawn.

But I long, deeply, for a private place where I can crank up my music really loud.

Where there isn’t a long tedious list of “house rules” and restrictions on everything from bird-feeders (verboten) to grilling outdoors.

Where we could easily host multiple friends, finally able to reciprocate their house-owning hospitality to us.

Which we could rent out and leave if we want to.

We’re thinking of a road trip to Nova Scotia — and found this, a 3 bedroom with 2 acres and ocean view, built in 1815.

And went a little mad with desire until I read that it’s the rainiest place in Canada except for the very rainy B.C. coast.

My father has owned many houses — including a great Georgian pile near Galway City in Ireland, built in 1789; a massive Victorian in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia and an elegant early Victorian in a small town in Ontario.

He just bought his latest, built in 1810, in another small Ontario town.

 

Do you live in a house?

Do you own it?

What’s it like?

How to create a lovely outdoor space

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By Caitlin Kelly

Our balcony is on the top floor — sixth — and it’s 72 square feet of heaven. The minute it’s warm enough, we’re out there from dawn to dusk, savoring birdsong, Hudson River views, stars and cool breezes.

It’s not that difficult to make a small space affordably cheery and welcoming, but it can feel overwhelming when you start. Ours has zero inherent charm — red brick walls and a grey painted concrete floor.

Think of your outdoor space — whether a patio, balcony, terrace, verandah — as another room of your home with the same needs: comfortable seating, lighting, something soft and pretty underfoot — lots of color and texture.

Some tips:

Choose a color scheme and stick to it

Blue and green are perennial favorites, mimicking the colors of nature. If you’re in the city, surrounded by concrete — maybe bright yellow or brilliant fuchsia is more your speed. Ours are a light olive green, cobalt blue, navy blue and white. I chose our plant colors as well to play nicely with our cushions and tablecloths — planting only blue/purple lavender and salvia, deep purple lobelia and lantana — plus bright pops of orange.

 

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Invest in solid, attractive planters, pots and window-boxes

Jose’s my in-house carpenter and has twice designed and made lovely wooden planters, lined with plastic and gravel. Made of simple plywood, we painted them green and added a glossy navy blue trim for contrast.

Over the years, we’ve added some quality pots of varying sizes, (all in blue and green), a growing investment. If terrible weather looms (hail!), bring them indoors when possible and store them away from ice and snow. I found these fantastic navy blue ceramic planters this year at Home Depot.

 

Create a comfortable seating area

It might be a few chairs (please, not flimsy plastic!) —  woven bistro-style or durable powder-coated metal or a wooden bench or a lounger. Years ago, my first husband built a solid six-foot-wide wooden bench that I’m still using 25 years later, albeit with replaced top and bottom. With three wide cushions on top, it becomes a banquette, while also storing all our hardware, painting tools and leftover potting soil.

We’ve collected throw pillows for years, some custom-made from vintage fabrics, some custom-made of new fabric and some store-bought. We lean them against the (sturdy) glass divider separating us from our neighbor and — voila! — dining/seating area.

 

Shade?

If your space offers no natural shade, consider a patio umbrella or, if you own your home, an awning.

 

Table?

How big a table can your space accommodate? Ours is 36 inches wide and perfect for dinner for four. Yours can be made of pretty much anything, (wood, metal, glass), but will need to withstand weather! Ours is a powder-coated model from Crate & Barrel, and has lasted for many years. It’s light enough to move easily and folds flat.

 

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Lighting matters

This can be the most challenging. This year I scored three gorgeous, huge lanterns from one of my favorite sources — Jamali Garden — a Manhattan-based company whose selection of every possible garden-related item is both fantastic and surprisingly affordable. Mine were (!!) only $17 apiece — much less costly than competing offers from Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. I also bought 12 navy blue votive holders to line our windowsill. You can string Christmas lights, use hurricane lamps, even (if safe enough!) old-time kerosene lanterns.

 

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Rugs!

We have a very large plastic one (blue and white, of course) but this year I added a small blue and white rag rug for under my feet. Much nicer! There are many options now for outdoor rugs and even if it sounds impossibly splurge-y, it’s a great choice: they can be hosed down, stored during the winter and soften and cover nasty stone/concrete/worn-out wood beneath.

 

Plants and flowers

I’m not a great gardener, for sure, but opening our balcony door to a profusion of color and scent is such a treat! The tallest planter this year holds fragrant lavender and rosemary, while the purple salvia is a positive bee-fest. Make sure whatever you choose is suited to the amount of sun, shade and wind of your outdoor space.

There are so many great retail sources for all of these items — but don’t forget your local thrift and consignment shops, estate sales and flea markets, with lots of charm and low prices. Consider re-purposing a bright Indian-print coverlet as a tablecloth…

My favorite (American) retailers for outdoors design and accessories include:

Ballard Designs, Serena & Lily, Fermob, Wisteria, Frontgate, Jamali Garden, Crate & Barrel, Mothology, Anthropologie.

How to choose great home colo(u)rs

By Caitlin Kelly

Few challenges can feel as daunting — and turn out so horribly — as choosing paint colors for your home. Even selecting a white (creamy? icy? blue undertones?) can be tougher then you think.

 

People also forget, or don’t realize, a few basics when choosing colors:

 

What color is the existing floor? If wood, it is pale, orange-y, dark? White tile? Your permanent flooring, unless you plan to change it or renovate, adds a huge chunk of color to your room. Will it go beautifully, or badly, with whatever you put on the walls and baseboards (what Britons call skirting boards)?

What direction(s) does the room face? A north-facing room will have a different kind of light than one facing south.

What views does the room have? If it overlooks leafy green trees, (or a red brick wall), do you really want purple? Don’t forget, each color you choose should relate well to all the colors around and near it, (which is why a huge black sofa doesn’t help much.)

How much division does your space have between rooms? i.e. if it’s mostly open plan with each color immediately adjacent to one another, a stark contrast will look odd and unattractive. The eye should travel easily from one space to the next without jarring interruptions.

— Who’s mostly going to be using that room? A young child? An older person? A teenager? What do they love most?

How do you want to feel in that room? Calm? Energized? Soothed? Color powerfully affects our mood.

Matte finish, semi-gloss, gloss, Venetian plaster finish, faux finish?

What colors are your existing furniture, rugs, curtains and other major accessories?

What color scheme? Our living room is a classic pairing of opposite colors on the color wheel (red and green) — but a soft muted red and a pale yellow-green, not the dark/harsh Christmas combo that mix usually brings to mind.

Here’s a super-helpful explanation of various color schemes and the differences between shade, tone and hue.

House Beautiful magazine also publishes, every month, great colors designers select as some of their favorites.

The colors in our apartment are all from a British company in Dorset, Farrow & Ball, who add to their stunning range every year, currently with 132 colors. They also offer their discontinued colors, (like the Gervase Yellow on our living room and hallway walls.)

I visited their paint and wallpaper factory last July, a 2.5 hour train ride and 30 minute cab ride from London. I met their production director and their head of color consulting, Charlie (Charlotte) Cosby, both of whom were warm and welcoming and took me through their facility.

What I like about F & B colors — apart from their great names, like Elephant’s Breath, Clunch and Dead Salmon — is their subtlety and depth. My husband, who’s done all the painting, loves the paint’s texture, which he compares to melted ice cream.

Gervase Yellow is warm but gentle, and goes very well with our mid-brown wooden floor, wooden furniture and mixed art; that room’s colors include sage green (sofa), deep burgundy (rug) and these striped curtains.

 

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Our bathroom walls are Hay (I think!), a deep mustard; I love their acid-bright Yellowcake and Babouche, (the color of fresh egg yolk), one of the best yellows anywhere.

Our bedroom is (I think!) Hardwick White (might be Skimming Stone), the warm soft gray of cigarette ash.

Our wooden kitchen cabinetry and the drawers shown below are in French Grey with Clunch (a neutral gray-white) on the walls.

 

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The sitting room is Peignoir, a very pale lavender, which picks up a color in the existing curtains and is subtle but warm. It doesn’t so much read purple as…almost a pale gray; it also works really well near Gervase Yellow because purple and yellow are opposites (again!) on the color wheel and because they’re very similar in value, (i.e. there’s no huge contrast between a light color and a darker one.)

 

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Gervase yellow (in shadow) meets Peignoir (in light)

Here are some more, quite technical explanations of color theory.

If you read interior design magazines, you’ll see, lately, a lot of rooms in two of F & B’s saturated and dramatic deep blues, Hague Blue and Stiffkey — and their pale, gorgeous, ethereal blue of Borrowed Light.

The trick, of course, is to paint a big enough sample before painting a whole room; get a piece of foamcore or stiff cardboard as large as you can — and sit with the color for a day or two to see it in daylight, candle-light, whatever illumination that room will be using. (Every light source adds its own color as well, with incandescent light being warmer than halogen or fluorescent.)

 

 

Life at the speed of technology

By Caitlin Kelly

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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.

 

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Here’s a recent New York Times Magazine essay musing on the same issue:

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.

If you have time (!), here’s his 2005 TED talk, (19 minutes), on why we all need to move ar a much less frenzied pace.

And here are his three books on the topic.

 

Do you sometimes wish we could all move much more slowly?

A New York City museum of everyday life

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you’ve never been to New York City, you’ve still probably heard of the Met Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Maybe the Guggenheim.

If you’re planning a visit, I urge you to visit one that will forever change your perception of the city, and of the early immigrant experience in the U.S. — the Tenement Museum.

It is simply extraordinary, in telling the true stories of the lives of early immigrants to New York City, who lived in these two narrow buildings on Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side at the start of the 20th century.

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 closets.

No telephone.

No privacy.

No silence.

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.

Two winter days in D.C.

By Caitlin Kelly

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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.

Here’s a list of 8 semi-tourist-y things to do, there, written by a travel writer.

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.

 

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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!

The store has been in business for 33 years, a huge accomplishment on its own. It’s on U Street NW in an neighborhood that has massively gentrified — head around the corner and a few blocks down 14th street to Ted’s Bulletin for a fun, fab lunch.

 

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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.

 

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On Sunday I went by Metro and bus to Georgetown, an elegant and historic enclave filled with narrow townhouses and herringbone brick sidewalks. Here’s a list of 16 things to do in Georgetown — including (!) seeing the steep staircase featured in the terrifying film The Exorcist.

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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I climbed steep 32d. street to Dumbarton Oaks, a stunning mansion that was once a private home and is now a small museum with an eclectic mix of pre-Columbian art and textiles, Byzantine art and textiles, ancient books and a legendarily lovely garden. Like much of D.C.’s attractions, admission is free.

I went to see a small show of paintings of women, and loved most the Degas oil of two of his relatives, two women singing to one another, on a visit to New Orleans.

It was a perfect weekend!

 

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Have you been to D.C.?

 

Do you have a favorite spot there?

 

What makes “home” home for you?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

 

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.

This, from Outside magazine:

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.

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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,

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The left is before; the right is after. I designed our galley kitchen

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?

 

Two September days in Montreal

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.)

 

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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.

If you’ve never visited, allez-y!

 

A week in London

By Caitlin Kelly

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The last stop! (sob)

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:

 

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Museums

 

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.

Their cafe is a delight — huge, airy, filled with natural light. Be sure to make time for a cup of tea or lunch.

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.

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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.

 

Exploring

 

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.

Look up at the city’s 900 ceramic blue plaques commemorating famous people who’ve lived there. On one busy block of Argyll Street, there are plaques for the American writer Washington Irving and Brian Epstein, who once managed the Beatles; the latter’s is above Five Guys, whose burgers and fries are amazing.

Flea markets

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 pricewhen 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.

We also visited Portobello market, where I got a gorgeous cashmere turtleneck for 10 pounds ($13) and splurged on fabric and ribbon at this amazing shop (who ship to the U.S.)

Here’s a comprehensive list of London’s flea and antiques markets.

I lived in London ages two to five and have been back many, many times since, enjoying everything from tea at the Ritz to shopping at Fortnum & Mason to an amazing show of photos at Tate Modern.

The city really offers something for every taste. Be sure to enjoy a few very British traditions, from a leisurely afternoon tea to a pint at a pub.

Make time to watch the river traffic on the Thames, with everything from small sailboats to coal barges.

 

Have you been there?

What did you enjoy the most?