My New York — insider tips

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Lincoln Center

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Few cities are as iconic as New York — maybe Paris, London, Tokyo — its skyline instantly recognizable, whether the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building, my favorite.

I moved here from my native Canada in 1989, thanks to my mother’s American citizenship which allowed me the right to a “green card”, the legal ability to live and work in the U.S.

Why New York?

For an ambitious writer, it seemed obvious — ready access to editors and publishers and agents and fellow writers, to conferences and parties and events where I can, and have, meet them face to face.

But also for the city itself, with its history, architecture, cultural riches and the beauty of the Lower Hudson Valley, where we live — the glittering towers of downtown Manhattan clearly visible even from our town on the river, 25 miles north.

 

Here’s some of what I enjoy…

 

Fleet Week

Once a year, since 1984, the city welcomes thousands of sailors. It’s so cool! You feel like you’re in a Broadway play from the ’30s as sailors in their crisp whites swarm midtown. This amazing collection of caps lined a table at event I attended — I was even piped aboard!

 

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Keen’s…since 1885

 

Old-school bars and restaurants, some dating back 150 years

My favorite lunch spot is Keen’s, founded in 1885, where I even now have a regular table. The room is long, dark, quiet and full of atmosphere. Linen tablecloths, early portraits and handbills and the ceiling, lined with early clay pipes. The food is very good as is the service; it’s on a nothing-special block, 36th, in a noisy and crowded part of Midtown, a perfect refuge. For classic old school charm, I also love Fanelli’s, Old Town Bar, the Ear Inn, Sardi’s, Bemelman’s, The King Cole Bar and the Landmark.

 

What’s left of Greenwich Village

 

It’s changed a lot, thanks to greedy landlords who have raised commercial rents to absurd prices, shoving out most of its funky long-time tenants selling used CDs or Tibetan clothing. But if you look hard enough, some indies survive, usually far east or west. Two of my stand-bys are Porto Rico Coffee & Tea and McNulty’s, each of which feel like time capsules. For afternoon tea, I like Bosie’s and for a splurge meal, Morandi. East 9th is always worth a wander. The bit of Bleecker running between 6th and 7th is still home to great food shops.

 

 

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Lincoln Center

What a gem! The exteriors, clad in gleaming white marble, and its gorgeous central fountain, make you excited just to be there. Plus the luxurious interiors of the Met Opera, the Koch Theatre and David Geffen Hall — opened between 1962 and 1966.   Unlikely but true, I once performed in eight shows of The Sleeping Beauty, with the National Ballet of Canada and with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead (I was an extra) at the Koch Theater, exiting (!) through its stage door. I began enjoying the Met Opera, finally, last year and feel like the richest woman in the world to be able to walk through those doors on any night there’s an empty seat I can afford.

 

Grand Central Terminal

Commuter trains travel from here north to Westchester county and beyond, and northeast to Connecticut. Built between 1903 to 1913, it serves approximately 66 million passengers a year. It’s truly a cathedral, with a brilliant turquoise domed ceiling, lit with stars, enormous hanging period lanterns, marble stairs and floors and its iconic central clock. It also houses very good restaurants, a lovely food hall, a wine store, multiple bakeries and some great shopping — also (very elusive!) free, clean and safe bathrooms.

 

Smaller, quieter museums

Mad for the Secessionists — Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka — I love The Neue Galerie (with its fantastic cafe). I also like small and elegant Japan Society, the Frick and The Morgan. While the big boys (the Met and MOMA) will always win visitors, they can also be noisy and crowded.  If you love airplanes as much as I do, try the Intrepid Museum. Two truly worth a visit are the Tenement Museum — showing how the city’s earliest immigrants lived in such tiny, cramped rooms  — and the Merchant’s House, a time capsule from 1832.

 

The four B’s: Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdales, Barney’s and Bigelow

Oh, go on! Even for a quick peek. Last June, I watched Ivana Trump, (wife number one), blonde beehive intact, meandering the perfume department at Barney’s; (I was there to treat myself to a Byredo fragrance for my birthday.) These three stores are not inexpensive, but worth a visit to get a feel for New York luxury and BG has a gorgeous cafe with great views. Bigelow Chemists on Sixth Avenue, established in 1838, sells an amazing array of beauty and skin products, including their own line. Cool fashionistas like Dover Street Market, Opening Ceremony and Totokaelo. My two standbys are Ina, (a consignment store with multiple locations and great merch) and Aedes de Venustas, with the best selection of fragrance around, now on Orchard Street.

 

Eight of my favorite places

By Caitlin Kelly

Having lived in five countries — my native Canada, France, England, Mexico and the U.S. — I have so many favorite places, a few of which (sob!) are now gone.

I travel as often as time and money allows, and am always torn between re-visiting old favorites and making new discoveries.

 

Île St.-Louis

 

We’ve stayed several times in a rented apartment here, on the aptly-named Rue de Deux Ponts (the street of two bridges). The island sits in the Seine River, setting it physically apart from the bustle and noise of the rest of the city. The streets are narrow and short, and it’s overwhelmingly residential. One of our favorite restaurants, Les Fous de L’Île is on that street, about four doors away from a Parisian legend, the ice cream shop Berthillon, which offers amazing flavors.

I love how compact the island is, complete with its own bars, bakeries, hair salon, ancient church. Yet, within minutes, you’re back on Paris’ Left Bank or Right Bank, ready to roll.

 

Keen’s Steakhouse

 

Tucked away on a side street in un-glamorous midtown sits this terrific bit of Manhattan culinary history. The main dining room is long, dimly-lit, filled with tablecloth-covered tables and framed ephemera. The ceiling is the coolest part — lined with clay pipes wired to the ceiling. In business since 1885, the food is delicious and well worth a splurge. There’s a less-formal small dining room on one side and the bar area is also charming. You feel completely transported out of noisy, busy 2018.

 

 

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Liberty

 

Probably my favorite store in the world, this legend is in London, opened in 1885 and the Regent Street location in 1927; here’s a history. 

I visit every time I get to London, even if I buy nothing.

It’s a store focused on luxury, but a very specific louche-aristo look, eccentric and confident. Even if you just go for a cuppa in their tearoom, check out the mock-Tudor building’s exquisite stained  glass windows and light-filled central atrium.

 

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring

 

The Grand Canyon

Ohhhhhh, you must go! No words can really do it justice. My only advice — you must hike down into the Canyon to experience it, and spend a full day if at all possible, watching the light and shadows shift minute by minute.

 

The Toronto Islands

 

What a joy these are! Jose and I got married on one of them, in a tiny wooden church surrounded by public parkland — and accompanied by (!) the mooing of cows from a nearby petting zoo. One of the islands is covered with tiny inhabited cottages, the most coveted real estate in the city — a challenge when, (as happened to me with a boyfriend) — you have a 3 a.m. nosebleed and the Harbor Police have to race across and get you to a hospital.  They’re a great place to walk, bike, swim, relax and enjoy great views of the city at sunset. The ferry ride over is still one of my favorite things to do anywhere, any time.

 

 

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Our wedding church, St. Andrew by The Lake, Centre Island, Toronto

 

Grand Central Terminal

 

It really is a cathedral, and sees more than 750,000 visitors every day — most of them commuters from suburban Westchester (north in New York) or Connecticut (northeast) traveling by train.

Built in 1913, it’s spectacular — a brilliant turquoise ceiling with gold-painted constellations and pin-point lights sparkling as stars; enormous gleaming metal hanging lamps, elegant brass-trimmed ticket booths, wide marble steps and floors.

It also offers many shops, great restaurants and bars, a terrific food market (check out Li-Lac chocolates for a chocolate Statue of Liberty) and the classic Oyster Bar downstairs.

 

GONE!

 

The Coffee Mill

 

This legendary cafe, a fixture in Toronto for more than 50 years, closed in 2014. It opened in 1963, and, as a little girl, I loved sitting on one of its cafe chairs in the sunshine near a fountain. Later, in a nearby location, inside a small shopping center easily overlooked, it continued serving Hungarian specialties — strudel, goulash and the freshest rye bread anywhere. The booths were small and intimate and its owner always immaculate. On every trip back — and I left in 1986 — I stopped in for a coffee or a meal.

 

BamBoo

 

Oh, the 80s! A former laundromat on Toronto’s Queen Street became — from 1983 to 2002 — a fantastic bar and restaurant, with a lively rooftop scene perfect on a steamy summer’s evening. Here’s its history, and an excerpt:

Inviting in every possible way, the BamBoo was relaxed, warm, and far from slick. Random parts hinted at an industrial past, including the outdoor fountain built atop the remnants of the building’s original boiler. A narrow metal stairwell led up to the Treetop, a Jamaican style bar ‘n’ BBQ that opened on the club’s rooftop in summer of 1984, expanding the BamBoo’s legal capacity to 500.

“During the summer heat, there was nowhere you wanted to be other than the Treetop Lounge,” says [Toronto artist Barbara] Klunder. “Think rum drinks and burgers at brightly painted barstools or coffee tables under the night sky and the CN Tower.”

What are some of your favorite places — and why?

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

Georgetown

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.

 

Georgetown

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.

 

Georgetown

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.

 

Georgetown

 

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.

 

Georgetown

 

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.

 

Georgetown

 

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!

 

Georgetown

 

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!

 

Georgetown

 

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,

COMBO 01A
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?