I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.
A few notes, in transit:
The kindness of strangers
It’s an interesting experience, as a generally competent and independent adult, to be vulnerable, to need other people to pay attention to me when I need it — like when I got on the wrong train in Frankfurt and, re-directed by a kindly stranger, quickly de-trained.
When transport and restaurant and shop and hotel staff are helpful, even friendly, it matters so much more than when you’re at home, surrounded by the love of friends and family. I enjoy travel, and am happy to do it alone, but rudeness and indifference can sting without the emotional supports of the familiar.
I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a crowded corner cafe of Berlin’s Ku’damm, a major street, and a spot surely full of tourists like me — when I noticed a police motorbike speeding down the sidewalk opposite.
It was nothing serious, but it could have been.
This trip, I’m spending more time than ever before paying attention to my surroundings and how the people around me are behaving. Without my protective, savvy husband — (a former White House Press corps photographer who spent eight years watching the Secret Service protect the President and his family) — it’s all up to me.
Situational awareness matters now.
The humility of needing translation
I speak French, so Paris was easy. I don’t speak a word of German, (or Hungarian or Croatian or Italian.) Nor do I use apps or carry a pocket dictionary. It is humbling to rely on others’ knowledge, and their willingness to use it to help me.
I was at a gym here in Berlin trying to explain something, when a young man, clearly on his way to the office, stepped in: “Do you need help translating?”
I did. And was so grateful!
People may share tables here, and expect to do so. North Americans are more accustomed to lot of physical room, in public and in private.
I love this crazy painting in my Berlin hotel, lobby, Hotel Savoy
Your memory isn’t my memory
Everyone has their favorite (or not!) memories of the places they’ve been and I’m constantly told to Do this! See that! by well-meaning friends.
But your memory of each place is shaped, as mine are, by many variables: who you were with, how old you were, your budget and tastes, the time of day and year, the weather, even the strength of your currency, in that moment.
We also may enjoy wholly different things!
I like to wander. I’m just not a box-ticking type of tourist, rushing to every must-see or trying every must-do.
One of my loveliest afternoons happened by walking a side street, slowly, and discovering one of Germany’s major auction houses, housed in a gorgeous architect-designed building from the late 1800s. I had a great chat with the woman at their front desk, a former Lufthansa flight attendant who got married — in all places — on Staten Island, New York.
That’s not an experience I could have planned, nor offered by any blog or guidebook.
Sitting still is key
Travel is, for all its many pleasures, tiring. Your feet get sore and tired from walking. Your arms and shoulders get weary from dragging a backpack or suitcase. You get hungry and thirsty.
You need to think, to make notes, to just stare into the sky for a while.
You have chosen to stop working — and also just need to rest.
Most of my favorite memories are of sitting still for a while, even an hour at a time (!), watching the light shift and the people walking by, possibly sipping a pot of tea or a prosecco.
There’s never enough champagne!
Taking photos is my greatest joy
I started my career as a photographer, so I love finding images to treasure and frame for our home. My husband gave me a gorgeous little Leica for my birthday and I’m making very good use of it!
Everything is visually interesting to me: light, shadows, foliage, the patterns on a bike or a dress.
I’m fascinated by how different my hotel’s street in Berlin — Fasanenstrasse — looks at all hours — the sky is light at 3:45 a.m. (!) and at 7:10 a.m. I suddenly noticed sharp sunlight briefly illuminating a fantastic stone carving in a doorway.
Routine still matters
I found a gym in Berlin, took a spin class, lifted weights — and sweated happily. At home in New York, I’m at the gym two to three times every week and I miss it. I need to stay in shape.
Routine — although deadening when never broken — is also a little soothing when everything else around you is new.
That little white bear in the very back? He’s along for the ride!
So does comfort
Yes, I travel with a very old, very small, very beloved stuffed bear.
And I’m fine with that.
Acquisition versus disposal
I rarely shop for anything at home beyond gas and groceries, and find much of what I really crave too expensive — and that which I can easily afford unappealing.
So I love to shop when I travel.
But I offload as I go; every post office sells stiff cardboard boxes and plastic packing. I spent 38 euros ($42) this week in Berlin to mail three packages home, things I do want later but don’t need to want to drag around at the moment.
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’m leaving, starting in Paris with Jose for my birthday, for six weeks in Europe, most of it spent alone and my longest break in 30 years — Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zagreb-Istria-Venice-London.
A few reasons to travel:
Meeting “the other”
Who’s “foreign” and why? What does it even mean to be a foreigner? What’s janteloven and how does it affect Scandinavian behavior? What’s a “bank holiday” and why do people look forward to it? Why do the Dutch keep their windows open and their interiors visible? What part of a Thai person’s body should you never touch?
We each live within a cultural and historical matrix affecting our choices, whether we realize it or not. Shedding that protective shell, even briefly, can be eye-opening — even life-changing.
The Brooklyn Bridge, NYC
Becoming “the other”
Suddenly you’re the fish out of water, whose assumptions and beliefs can seem weird, even rude, where you’re the visitor.
To slooooooow down and pay close attention to where you are
Turn off your phone! Put down that damn selfie-stick!
Instead, bring binoculars, a sketch book, a book to read. Sit on a rocky hilltop or by a waterfall or in an outdoor cafe. Sit still for an hour and be truly present.
Memories are the best souvenir and paying attention creates them.
Learning/testing your resilience and resourcefulness
It’s up to you to: read the map/menu/train station directions/find the hotel or hostel or apartment. It’s up to you to catch the right bus or subway, (a challenge if the language is Arabic or Chinese or Japanese or Cyrillic or Greek!) But the self-confidence it brings transfers nicely once you’re back on familiar soil.
Using/learning another language
Read the local paper or listen to radio and TV. Learn the phrases for “please” and “thank you” and “I need help.” Using the local language, if at all possible, is a basic show of respect, even if you blunder.
Realizing the value of other ways of thinking: political, economic, social, urban planning, healthcare
Americans, especially, have shockingly little knowledge of the world; with a huge Pacific Ocean to the West, the Atlantic to the east, simply getting out of the U.S. can mean a long, expensive flight. Nor are Americans taught much, if anything, about other countries and American exceptionalism can add a layer of potential arrogance and tone-deafness.
Making new friends
Social media and the Internet offers us unprecedented opportunities to make new friends, literally worldwide. Thanks to blogging, my journalism work and Twitterchats, I’ll be meeting up with new and old friends this summer in London, Paris and Berlin, and hope to make a few more along the way.
Americans call it Canadian bacon; we call it peameal!
Exploring new cultures
Through food, music, museums, galleries, architecture, parks and natural wonders. It’s easy to forget how essential other cultures have also been to the foundation of so much Western thought — French, Asian, Greek, Arabic, just to name a few.
Find out what a muffaletta and a pan bagnat have in common!
Gaining a deeper appreciation of history
I once stood in front of the magnificent marble facade of an Italian church with a Chinese friend who asked if we had such things in my country, Canada. No, I said — we didn’t even become a country separate from Great Britain until 1867.
Stand inside the ringing silence of the Grand Canyon or the African savannah or Australia’s Outback….and remember we’re mere blinks within millennia.
The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
Savoring nature’s silent beauty
So much travel is focused, as it should, on the great cities of the world. But there are so many stunning natural sites, from White Sands Monument in New Mexico, (actually silica), to the vast red deserts of Namibia and Morocco, the jungles of Central and South America and Africa, the rugged islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland and the U.S. and Canada…
Trying new activities
No bungee-jumping for me! But I’ve tried street food in Bangkok, chocolate-filled churros in Mexico City, sea-kayaking on Ko Phi Phi, horseback riding through the desert in Arizona. Even if it’s an activity you know, doing it in a wholly different environment is worth trying; I loved playing golf on Cruit Island in strong winds at the ocean’s edge — leaving my cheeks salty with sea-spray.
Looking for travel ideas or inspiration?
There are hundreds of travel blogs; one, written by a young Scottish friend — who met her American husband (of course!) while teaching English in China — is Stories My Suitcase Could Tell.
I also enjoy the sophisticated tips offered by a Canadian living in Paris, here.
It’s a fantastic time to visit Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal.) The Canadian dollar is about 73 cents U.S. and it’s a gorgeous place, with much to see, from Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland (forever on my to-do list) to the spectacular Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island — at the opposite end of my enormous country.
I join weekly travel-focused Twitterchats, like #TRLT, #travelskills and #culturetrav. If you love travel, it’s a terrific way to learn a lot about the world and meet equally passionate fellow travelers.
In a few days, American citizens will choose their new President, (and other elected officials, which tends to get lost in the fray.)
Some of us who chose to come to the United States — and not those (blessedly) fleeing war, oppression, terror, economic disaster — are now, nervously, wondering…what next?
Will we stay?
If not, where will we go?
This is not unique to me; here’s a comment on a recent piece in The Economist:
An American friend who has 2 children to raise and educate has already emigrated, to Australia in this case, because his wife is Australian. And then a few Asian dual-citizenship friends already left. In their words, “America is not a good place to raise kids – too many guns, and too many strange xenophobes. It’s not worth it.” They are all bilingual, bi-literate, high-skilled professionals. I certainly am packing too if Trumps wins.
I’ve avoided much discussion here about this election, although I will say clearly I do not want Donald Trump to win and am very, very fearful of the effects, domestically and globally, his election would create.
I’m disgusted and appalled by the way he dismisses and demeans women, Muslims, Mexicans (my husband’s heritage), the disabled and others.
I chose a country I then believed welcoming to “the other”, a place where your background and beginnings mattered less than your education, skills, drive and ambition.
This no longer feels true to me.
I have not become a citizen, so I will not be voting. I will accompany my husband to the polling station, proudly, as I did last time.
Choosing to emigrate to the U.S. places you in an odd few buckets.
The word “immigrant” is too often conflated with “illegal” or assumed to be someone whose choices elsewhere were so utterly barren that we had to come, have to stay and have no better options back at home — or in any other nation.
The true picture is much more varied.
There are immigrants who’ve made millions of dollars. There are those stuck in low-wage, menial jobs, sometimes for decades.
But there are also millions of us who thought coming to the United States, making a deliberate choice, was worth a try, maybe later in life or mid-career, maybe having to persuade a dubious spouse or children to create a fresh start here.
There are many of us, especially those with multiple language skills and the ability to work in other languages or cultures, those of us with cross-cultural fluency, who could leave, returning to our homeland or trying yet another country.
I left Toronto, and Canada, a nation with cradle-to-grave government supplied healthcare, (versus the $1,400 I pay every month here in NY, thanks to self-employment and corporate greed), a country whose very best universities offer a year’s tuition for less than $10,000 — not the $50,000 to $60,000 plus charged by the U.S.’s top private schools.
I came to the U.S. at the age of 30; then as now, I had no children to worry about.
Nor did I mind leaving my family of origin behind as we’re not close emotionally and returning, in need, is a quick 90 minute flight.
But my decision was still terrifying!
I knew very few people. Had no close family here — cousins in California with whom I have virtually no contact.
Had no job. Had no graduate degree nor the Ivy League education and social capital I would (belatedly!) learn are essential to elite success in the crazy-competitive Northeastern enclaves of publishing and journalism.
I now own property here. I’m married to an American. I have long-standing friendships and deeply love the region I chose, the lower Hudson Valley.
But the prospect of a Trump Presidency is making me, and many, many others deeply anxious.
Those of us with portable skills and multiple passports and/or citizenships do have options.
Thanks to my paternal Irish grandfather, I can also apply for Irish citizenship and an EU passport; I already speak fluent French and decent Spanish.
The United States Capitol. Policies and laws enacted here affect everyone, rarely equally.
There’s an expression I hear a lot in the U.S. — to put your thumb on the scale — i.e. to tilt a result in your favor.
I live near New York City, in a county rife with stunning wealth, (and the not-so-wealthy!) so we have a front-row seat to this constant jockeying for power.
I believe in its opposite — the level playing field.
As some of us watch the Olympics this week, fair competition is front and center.
The Muslim-American fencer Ibithaj Muhammad I just blogged about got to Rio thanks to a playing field, (in this case, piste!), leveled by the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a 15-year-old non-profit in New York City founded by a former bronze medalist who is African-American. The program has worked with 4,000 lower-income children, offering them opportunities to learn this elegant, historic and fantastic sport, and one all too often seen as impossibly elitist.
Then there’s this. From an explainer in The Economist:
A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report into Russian doping by a Canadian lawyer, Richard McLaren, was published only on July 18th—18 days before the opening ceremony. Furthermore, the contents of Mr McLaren’s report were appalling. Beginning in 2011 the Russian ministry of sport set up a comprehensive programme to circumvent anti-doping laws. It reported false negatives to WADA, created a steroid cocktail to boost performance (the name it was given, “Duchess”, is worthy of Ian Fleming), worked with the FSB, the state security service, to evade independent testing, and tampered with drugs tests while hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The world is, for many of us, a highly competitive place. The more ambitious you are — socially, financially, professionally — the greasier the pole.
Harvard, already hell to get into, also has private on-campus clubs so exclusive that people weep on their doorsteps when refused admission.
Because what’s the point of privilege — unless you guard it ferociously?
The Fly is one of six remaining all-male final clubs. They are, if not the hub, the apex of social life at Harvard — upscale surrogates for those classic centers of college merriment, sororities and fraternities…
Entree can feel like belonging, rejection like a scarlet F…
But to many students on the outside, the clubs are laden with a legacy of upper-crust snobbishness. As the writer Kenneth Auchincloss referred to them in a 1958 dispatch in The Harvard Crimson: Final clubs are gathering places of the “St. Grottlesex crop,” an amalgamation of the names of several elite East Coast boarding schools, who “look to the Clubs as centers for privacy and ‘good-fellowship,’ cut off from the hectic University by their locked front doors, their aura of secrecy, and a generally shared feeling of superiority.”
…The elaborate courtship of the desirable can begin with an engraved invitation slipped under a dorm room door to “punch” — a selection process that continues with a series of outings and culminates in a black-tie dinner feting the few who make it through.
My husband Jose works part-time as a photo editor at abcnews.com, owned by Disney; this week they handed out brand-new backpacks, asking employees to fill them with donated school supplies.
We don’t have kids, so the whole back-to-school routine is something we don’t do. We had a blast running around Staples, and discovered that it cost $50 to buy everything on the list.
That’s still a significant sum in our family — and an impossibly high one for a family with a lower income and/or multiple children to shop for.
We hope the recipient enjoys it!
Here’s a sobering piece from The Atlantic:
In dealing with the persistence of intergenerational wealth, the changes that would be most effective are also the most sweeping: Taking private money out of political campaigns would give more of a voice to people who’d benefit from stronger social policies. Bolstering housing-voucher programs would let poorer families move into better neighborhoods. Increasing taxes at the uppermost end of the income spectrum would redistribute perpetuated wealth. Finding ways to get lower- and middle-income workers to put more money into savings would help them improve their lots.
So, the lesson from this report: Take whatever extreme, politically unfeasible changes everyone thought were necessary to increase economic mobility and make them more extreme and more unfeasible—that might be enough.
For refugees, fleeing Syria, it’s a hunger for basic dignity, as Mohammed Ali, 26, told Cnet:
“I just want beginning,” he says. “I just want to be at level zero, because here we are before level zero…I feel nothing change. Like, I was in Syria a number and here I am still a number. I have to be a person.”
It’s been a week of disbelief that American police officers are gunned down in cold blood in Dallas during a peaceful march — and disbelief that even more black men have been shot and killed by police as well.
In Dallas, local residents are approaching police officers, many likely for the first time, to hug them and pray with them and thank them for getting up every day, ideally, to serve and protect them.
In normal life, barring bad luck or criminal behavior, very few of us ever talk to a police officer.
Few of us are likely to know one socially unless police work, as it is often is, is part of your own family.
As a career journalist, for whom aggressively challenging hierarchy and questioning authority is key to doing my job well, interactions with police have been been few and far between — I didn’t cover “cops” as part of my job and, more generally, the way police are trained to think and behave is very different from that of journalists.
So how, then, do we ever meet, sit down with and get to know “the other”?
That “other” — i.e. someone whose race, religion, politics, ethnicity or socioeconomic class is wildly different from our own — is someone we really need to know and care about, more than ever.
The divisions, literally, are killing us.
How, then, and where, do we meet one another?
In a world now devoted to narrowed and narrower niches of communication — Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, blogs, media slanted in one direction or another — how do we find and listen thoughtfully to other points of view than our own?
How do we sit down face to face and have a civil conversation?
It doesn’t have to be about anything serious. It might be about baseball or music or what books you’ve been reading or your theory about Dany and her dragons on Game of Thrones.
For me, there are only two places like this right now, and I wish I had more.
One is the church I attend, although less and less of late. It is in a small, wealthy, white and conservative town near me. Of those labels, I’m white.
It’s a polite crowd, but deeply corporate and high-earning, with no one who really understands why I and my husband would choose such a poorly paid industry as journalism. What we have done for decades, and done very well, seems like an amusing hobby to them.
I’ve stayed partly because of those differences, although they are starting to wear me down.
The challenge of engaging with “the other” — beyond stilted chit-chat — is initial discomfort. They might have grown up somewhere far away you’ve never seen or attended a college you’ve never heard of. Maybe they didn’t go to college.
They might out-earn you by a factor of 10, or vice versa. Your collar might be white, blue or none, because you work, as we do freelance, at home in a T-shirt.
The discomfort of “the other” — and theirs with you! — is the point of friction we have to move beyond to create and enjoy dialogue, understanding and friendship.
Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort.
The other place I frequently meet a wide range of people and experiences is with a group of men and women, ages 20s to 70s, who play softball on Saturday mornings. We’ve been doing that since 2001, an unimaginably long time to do anything in a world that changes daily.
In a time of economic and political disruption, even chaos, it’s a haven of comfort and familiarity — even as it brings together a disparate group: a retired ironworker, several physicians, several lawyers, several editors, a gallerist.
After each game, about a dozen of us sit under a tree at a local cafe for a long lunch, whose conversations can turn surprisingly personal and intimate.
It’s not some Kumbaya moment and the group could be even more diverse — people find us through our friendships, generally.
If you never meet or talk to people who are very different from you, how can you credibly listen to their experiences and concerns, giving them the same validity you do your own group(s)?
I grew up in Toronto, one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, in a country whose population of immigrants remains higher than that of the U.S. — 20.6 percent.
In the U.S., with 10 times the population of Canada — it’s 13.3 percent.
Statistically, there, your odds of encountering someone very unlike you — in your classroom at school or college, on your hockey team, in your apartment building, on the subway or bus — are high in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. Calgary now has a Muslim mayor (as does London.)
So it’s normal to know, like and respect people who worship on different days, wear different clothing, eat different foods. They’re just…different…not, per se, a threat.
When Jose and I think about moving elsewhere for retirement, our first question is not just “can we afford it?” or “what’s the weather like there”?
It’s — how comfortable will he feel as a man with brown skin?
Donald Trump’s dog whistles of hatred and racism are deeply shocking to many people, in the U.S. and beyond.
My husband is of Mexican heritage, and well established in his field so the taunts can’t hurt him professionally.
But they are a disgusting way to dismiss a nation of people whose hard work has helped the U.S. for decades, if not centuries.
In a time of relentless, growing fear and xenophobia, I hope you’ll keep talking to, listening to and staying close to “the other”, however that plays out in your life.
The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.
I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.
It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.
These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.
You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.
Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.
There’s no other way to tell these stories well.
Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.
Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.
Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.
There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?
I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.
It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.
It’s called a press pack for a reason…
I hope, as you consume serious, smart journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.
On paper, the whole thing sounded a bit crazy, putting together a team of people ranging in age from 20s to 50s, who had never met or worked together, and jamming us into a rickety van we needed to push occasionally to work 12-hour days in 95-degree heat.
Best week of my life.
I had gotten to know the comm’s person, Alanna, and knew she was fun, smart and warm. That was enough for me, so whoever else she had chosen would be fine. And they were. We had many hours together, traveling in a very small plane (so small they weighed each of us, not just our baggage!) and by van.
We met up in Managua, a three-hour flight from Atlanta. We flew from there to Bilwi, a town on the eastern coast, of 40,000 people.
We quickly learned that our hotel’s showers and toilets and sinks with running water were a rare luxury there — that almost half the population had none of these things. They had a pipe in their front yard with water supplied by the city, if they had it at all. Or they walked a mile or more to the nearest well.
It was really hot, about 90 degrees every day all day. When you sweat that much, you need to drink a lot of water and you really want to bathe and clean off at day’s end. Now, I realized, these were luxuries I had taken for granted for decades. My whole life.
We drove into the countryside, a two-hour journey each way, to watch local villagers building their own toilets and sanitation projects so I could write about them for WaterAid and Rodrigo could make photos and videos. Jen and I did a Twitterchat later in the week to explain what we were seeing; it gathered a staggering response.
To conduct interviews, we worked in Spanish and in Miskitu, for which we had a translator, a local academic with the delightful name of Dixie. Tall, gentle, Dixie was our right hand.
One night we all stayed in the home of one of the women we were writing about, Linda. The house was all made of wood, with a corrugated tin roof and wide open windows, without glass but with curtains. The floors were soft and smooth beneath our bare feet, meticulously clean and free of insects.
We brought our own food, which Linda and her family cooked for us on their clay stove. Their home has no electricity or running water, so they cooked by the light of flashlights and headlamps.
We slept together in one large room on narrow cots with sleeping bags and mosquito nets, lulled to sleep by the sound of someone speaking in Spanish from the transistor radio hanging from a very large nail on the balcony.
In the morning, Jen and I traveled with Linda and her mother in law and her daughter across a river to collect vegetables from their plot there. We walked through the forest to reach the river, followed the whole way by a very large, very friendly and very determined turkey, one of the many animals living beneath their home.
As we reached the river’s edge, Linda’s mother in law, wielding a very sharp long machete casually reached behind herself, lopped off two lengths of bamboo, cut their ends at an angle and dropped them into the wooden dugout canoe for us — seats!
We were accepted without demands or interrogation. Welcomed into their home and treated as guests with kindness and respect. For most of us, there are few moments in life when you connect across culture, language, nationality, age, education. They are deeply moving. Unforgettable.
On both side of the river, we climbed steep sandy banks to reach the vegetable crops. By the time we returned to the house, the sun was so hot that I feared heatstroke, heading to the well to throw buckets of water over me.
The time we spent in Nicaragua — working as a team, meeting and interviewing and getting to know some of the local people — also could not have been a greater contrast to my work at home in New York.
It was a week of easy cooperation (not relentless competition.) Open-heartedness and kindness (not resentful close-fistedness.) Bottles of ice-cold water and comfortable beds to keep us going, comfortably (not the standard annoyance of being ignored or rejected by busy editors.)
And what joy to be part of a team of smart, passionate, funny and warm professionals. I work alone at home, and have done so for a decade. This was a great break from isolation and total self-reliance.
When we parted ways in Managua, we were teary. Two years later, Jen and and Alanna and I remain friends, in close contact still. Their country director, a fellow Canadian named Josh, came all the way out to our home to visit when he came up to New York.
I cried several times over this experience, which shocked me — I never cry.
But what I saw and felt there deeply touched me, both the ridiculous contrast between our easy life here and the penury we saw in Nicaragua. And also for the kindness and camaraderie I felt that week.
Journalism is very often a brutish business and its people too often gruff and dismissive, no matter what level of experience or skill you offer. They rarely praise or thank. They fight you over every penny you need to earn or to do the job well, and more than 24,000 of us have been fired or laid off in recent years.
To be treated as…valuable? Enjoyable? That was a blessedly unfamiliar feeling.
I now look for different kinds of work and deeper relationships with people whose values I admire.
I also turn off the water when I brush my teeth.
650 million people worldwide lack access to safe water.
Some people actually enjoy it, but this year — thanks to the strongest El Nino in decades — many flights are proving to be much bumpier than anyone ideally prefers. Like, screaming, throwing up, we’re-all-gonna-die bumpy.
Flights are increasingly being diverted to airports where the plane can actually land safely, as a recent instance in Canada where it went to an entirely different province. Or passengers and crew are injured and the flight diverts to the nearest airport and hospital that can accommodate it.
I’ve been flying around the world for 40+ years, on tiny aircraft (the Arctic, Caribbean, Nicaragua) and 777s and A320s, but (thank heaven!) have not ever had a really terrifying flight.
I do live in fear of one and yet I live to travel. Bit of a dilemma!
I figured others were noticing this pattern, certainly anyone who flies often.
I pitched the idea to The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for years.
I love the accompanying illustration with it (please go look!) by Randall Enos, a local artist exactly my age, whose work has accompanied other stories of mine in the paper. How on earth do you illustrate something invisible?
I was so thrilled with what he produced I called him at 9:00 in the morning to thank him — he was already up caring for his six horses. “I’m a horse janitor,” he said.
There are many different kinds of turbulence, with the most problematic to predict and to avoid being clear air turbulence (which is very difficult to detect using conventional radar). Much of it is typically experienced at cruising altitude.
In the last few months, at least three commercial flights, two on American Airlines and one on Air Canada, have experienced severe turbulence that resulted in injuries to those on board. In two instances, the flights were diverted to nearby airports so the injured could receive treatment.
Aviation professionals classify turbulence from light to extreme, a form they say is very rare. The challenge of reporting turbulence, several pilots said, is that the reports themselves are subjective.
While in flight, pilots file Pilot Reports (Pireps) to alert airline dispatchers and other pilots en route of any turbulence they’ve encountered; what one pilot considers mild might feel moderate to another.
This was by far the toughest story I’ve written in a long time!
I’ve never studied physics or aeronautics or flown a plane myself. Because so many people fly, even those who hate and fear it, I knew it would be well-read. I also knew that aviation professionals would likely read it so see if I got my facts right.
It’s not a simple, quick story, which also made reporting and writing it so satisfying. I like a challenge.
But I also live in terror of making a mistake!
I started by reading basic news reports to find out how widespread the problem is and what’s being done about it.
I wanted to speak to someone who’d been on a really bad flight to describe it firsthand. I found him by seeing him quoted in a Canadian news story, checked him out on LinkedIn and then had to persuade his assistant and his public relations agency to speak to me about it.
This was one of those stories where my network really came through for me, without which I simply couldn’t have done a decent job on a complex topic.
I asked an aviation writer, a woman I’ve never met, if she could recommend a source/expert, and she did, immediately — a pilot with decades of experience now teaching aeronautics. He proved invaluable throughout the lengthy process or producing this story, which took weeks of interviews and revisions and cuts.
I also spoke to four working pilots and a flight attendant — all working long-haul routes on 777s and their like. I wanted people in the air now, not retirees, and that meant I couldn’t name them.
That meant the Times refused to allow me to use their helpful insights and comments, at least not in quotes.
I spoke to several meteorologists to try and parse the many kinds of turbulence — some of which seem banal to pilots, if not to us shaken-up and scared passengers!
My goal was to both soothe nervous flyers as much as possible while making clear how essential it is to buckle your seatbelt!
I learned a lot and was so frustrated I couldn’t include more detail and quotes. But that’s journalism, kids!
We always work within some sort of restraint, whether time, length or access to sources.
So far, I’ve made it to 38 countries, from Thailand to Turkey, New Zealand to Austria, Fiji to Tanzania.
Then the only child of a globe-trotting freelance Canadian family — i.e. plenty of time to travel and no measly American two weeks’ vacation a year for us! — I took my first solo flight at seven, from Toronto to Antigua.
I live to travel, whether a weekend road trip from our home on the Hudson River near New York City to friends in Rhode Island or Maryland or a longer journey across an ocean.
Deeply grateful to have been so many places, here are some of the ones I’m still eager to visit:
Morocco, Iceland, Finland, Croatia, Japan, South Africa, Argentina, Antarctica, the Inner Hebrides where this blogger lives and the Outer Hebrides where this one grew up, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Brazil; within the U.S., to drive California and see the canyons of Utah and revisit the stunning vistas of Montana and the Dakotas; within my native Canada, to revisit the North.
We might finally make to to Newfoundland this summer, meeting friends there to camp and hike in spectacular Gros Morne National Park.
They chose Mexico City as their premier destination and I agree. It’s a fantastic place I’ve been to several times over the years, (although not in this list below.)
Here’s a tightly-edited list of 20 places I’ve been to I think well worth a visit:
Think of France and the last thing you’ll likely picture are cowboys and pink flamingos, let alone in the same region. But this flat marshy part of southern France is full of surprises and these are two of them. I spent my first honeymoon there, and interviewed a lady bullfighter for a story. Thanks to the TGV, the high-speed train network across the country, nowhere is hopelessly distant.
Like many others, I love this city’s architecture and scale, the colors — whether the pearly gray of buildings and rooftops or the deep rich tones of the glossy wooden doors leading to quiet, private courtyards — navy, emerald green, burgundy. Every alley has history and mystery. It’s a bustling city with room for visual intimacy.
I also come home every time with clothing and accessories that win compliments for years afterward. French women of every age dress with a style and confidence that’s inspiring to me.
My paternal grandfather emigrated from the small Donegal town of Rathmullan to Vancouver and I’ve been back to his birthplace twice. The northwesternmost county of Donegal is wild, windy and much less touristed than other parts of Ireland.
There are gorgeous islands nearby like Aranmor and tiny towns with welcoming spots like the Lobster Pot in Burtonport. (If you go, say hello to Annie and Tim, the owners.) We rented a cottage there for a week and fell in love with this part of the country.
I only saw the North Island, but found this distant nation stunningly beautiful, its people kind and welcoming and the 12-hour flight from Los Angeles worth it. The Coromandel Peninsula was breathtaking and I loved the exotic and unfamiliar (to me) vegetation like pohutukawa trees.
New York City
Few Western, let alone American, cities offer this combination of energy, elegance, style, history and architecture. From the canyons of Wall Street to Broadway to Harlem to Central Park, this is a must-see. The best bits are far from the noise and insanity of midtown, where throngs of tourists waste their days bumping into one another. (Check the archives here for several posts on quieter treasures here.)
And don’t come in summer! (It’s smelly and humid.)
That bridge! The fog! The harbor! San Francisco is an old-money town, with a quiet, low-key style all of its own. A terrific museum, the Presidio, old-school restaurants and a quieter pace. Take a day to drive the lush green hills and sleepy towns of Marin County.
The Hudson Valley
Just north of Manhattan lies a gorgeous region, where I’ve lived since 1989. Home to enormous Beaux Arts mansions like Lyndhurst, Kykuit and Hyde Park, its geography is stunning, especially as the Hudson River narrows near Cold Spring. The nation’s premier military academy, West Point, perches high above the river on the western edge — opposite a former Catholic monastery now home to a variety of Buddhist and other programs focused on spirituality.
Some of the steep and winding riverside drives are simply spectacular, especially in fall. Well worth an extra few days exploration if you’re coming to New York City.
The Toronto Islands
I grew up in Toronto, now a sprawling city of 2.6 million. It attracts many tourists to its shopping, (Queen Street West!), galleries and museums and many excellent restaurants. It sits on the northern edge of Lake Ontario, a fact easily missed because access to the waterfront has long been badly mangled by two expressways.
But one of the city’s treasures, in all seasons, are its islands, a quick, cheap ferry ride across the harbor. One of them is filled with colorful small homes, with fortunate residents who live there year-round, even though the region is technically public parkland. In summer, there are bikes for rent and a petting zoo and lovely beaches.
We were married on Centre Island in September 2011, and our guests arrived via water taxi. The church is tiny and intimate — and I could barely hear my processional music because of the cows mooing nearby in the petting zoo.
Watching the sun set from there over the city skyline is fantastic.
Many people visit France many times, but never think to visit this stunning island off its southern shore. I went there in 1995 for a week, traveling around the north by moped alone, and loved every second of it. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, anywhere — timeless, rugged, ringed by the Mediterranean.
Similar to French tourism, where many visitors focus on a few well-known spots, those going to Spain usually choose Barcelona and Madrid over the lovely southern cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada. I was there a very long time ago, but was mesmerized by the beauty, history and the mix of Spanish and Arab influences that affected food, architecture and language.
I was in Seville in spring, when the entire city burst into fragrant orange blossom. Unforgettable!
Mae Hong Son
The odds of getting there are slim, I know, as it’s a small town — pop. 6,000 — near the Burmese border, in northern Thailand. But if you’re going to Thailand, it’s worth it. I’ve never been to a town so small I could, and did, walk from the airport into town, with a Buddhist temple across the street. Centered around a small lake, its guesthouses are inexpensive and welcoming. We rode mopeds right to the Burmese border, one of the craziest adventures of my life — as the road was, literally, still being built, and we drove through clouds of silky red dust, using our feet as pontoons.
The Eastern Townships
A region of charming small towns a 90-minute drive south of Montreal, it’s got skiing, hiking, canoeing and gently rolling hills — where you can also dog-sled, go horseback riding or snowmobile. Here’s the website.
If you love the Louise Penny mysteries starring Armand Gamache, this is where she lives and where they’re set. We have stayed many times at Manoir Hovey on Lake Massawippi, a luxury resort worth every cent, and look forward to returning year after year.
I lived here as a little girl and have been back many times since. I find it more challenging, (expensive, slow to traverse by public transit), than Paris but a place everyone must visit and get to know, even a bit. From the enormity of Tate Modern to narrow cobble-stoned alleyways to the elegance of Primrose Hill, (with its terrific shopping and fantastic city views), London contains — like Paris and New York — many smaller and more intimate neighborhoods.
Some of my favorite things to do there include a visit to Liberty, (a store of enormous style and elegance. Not cheap!), tea somewhere lovely, (the Ritz last time!), visiting its flea markets and a few of the smaller museums, like Freud’s house, Sir John Soane’s house, the Wallace Collection or the Geffrye.
I lived for 18 months in New Hampshire and got to know NH and Vermont fairly well. I still prefer Maine, albeit coastal Maine, which is where most tourists will end up.
The coast is studded with small hotels and inns, has fantastic scenery and — if you want to drive that far — Acadia National Park. which is right on the ocean’s edge. We rented a house on Peak’s Island in Casco Bay, off of Portland, for a week and loved walking down to the dock to buy fresh lobster.
To watch the sun rising over the Andes, its light spilling into each successive valley, is one of life’s great pleasures. I was there decades ago and remember it as if it were yesterday.
Charleston and Savannah
Two of the most elegant and historic cities in the U.S., each with its own character. Charleston is more formal, Savannah funkier, but both offer moss-draped trees, charming streets and squares, fantastic Southern food.
Canadians who canoe know this northern Ontario park and love it deeply. You can see many images of it through the paintings of the Group of Seven, Canada’s version of the Impressionists.
Slabs of granite lapped by deep, dark waters. The haunting call of loons. Pine trees gnarled, bent and twisted by the winds.
I grew up canoeing its lakes and miss it still.
The Grand Canyon
The silence, below the rim, rings in your ears.
A fox leaped across the path I was walking. The light shifts minute by minute, creating new shapes and shadows. Few places on earth will make you feel as small, humble and grateful to have witnessed its staggering beauty. Of all the places I’ve ever visited, this one remains one of my favorites.
The interior of Ngorongoro crater is probably what Eden looked like — a vast plain filled with animals beneath the hot sun.