I’ve been fortunate enough to travel far and wide from an early age, the only child of two deeply curious parents who took the back seat out of their car, installed my crib, and drove to Mexico from Vancouver (my birthplace) when I was a small baby.
No wonder motion feels like my natural state!
I’ve been to 38 countries and 38 states of the U.S. — so far!
Here are the five places I’ve so far found the most beautiful and why:
Ko Phi Phi, Thailand (tied with Mae Hong Son, Thailand)
In 1994, I spent 21 days in Thailand, most of it with my first husband, but a week alone. To reach Ko Phi Phi was in itself an adventure — an overnight train from Bangkok to Krabi, at the nation’s southern tip, then a two-hour boat ride in blazing sun to reach the island, shaped like two croissants back to back. Even then, it was clear that it was being over-developed, and I wondered how it would change in later years.
Mae Hong Song has been called the prettiest town in Thailand, a quick flight from Bangkok, landing in an airport across the street from a Buddhist temple, and so close to town — which circles a lake — you simply walk the distance. In the early morning, mist covers the town and, atop its highest hill, you can easily hear kids and roosters and radios, but can’t see any of it, thickly muffled. As the sun rises and heats the moisture, it evaporates and shimmies upward, revealing the town below.
Well known to Europeans, lesser known to Americans, this island off the southern coast of France is spectacularly lovely. A quick flight or longer ferry ride brings you to Bastia in the north or Ajaccio in the south. I spent a week on a mo-ped touring the north, specifically La Balagne, and went as far inland and south as Corte.
It was July and the land is covered with maquis, a thick, low scrubby brush that’s a mix of herbs — sun-warmed it smells divine, so my nostrils were full of its scent. I drove down switchback roads to find 19th century hotels at the ocean’s edge, saw the Desert des Agriates in pelting rain, (a truly eerie Martian landscape), and felt more at home in its wild beauty than almost anywhere.
I wept, bereft, when the plane headed back to Nice. I’ve not yet returned but it remains one of my most treasured memories.
From top to bottom, this is a state bursting with natural beauty, from the sinuous red rocks of Sedona to the jaw-dropping expanses of the Grand Canyon.
I still recall a field of cactus at sunset, a spectacular array of gold and purple, their curves silhouetted against the sky.
I love Flagstaff; (stay at the Monte Vista, a funky hotel built in 1926) and you’ll feel like an out-take from a Sam Spade film noir. Tucson is a welcoming small city with some great restaurants.
It’s hard to overstate how lovely this country is — albeit a brutally long flight from most of the United States (12 hours from Los Angeles.) I only saw a bit of the North Island, staying in a youth hostel in the Coromandel Peninsula, where (!) I met and was promptly adopted by four kids then half my age who whisked me off to their weekend home then to one of their parent’s houses outside Auckland where, a total stranger, I was welcomed as family.
A place where kindness and beauty abound. What’s not to love?
Salluit, Quebec (aka the Arctic)
How can fewer than 24 hours somewhere be unforgettable decades later?
You’ll never go there because it’s a town of 500 people with no tourist facilities. Or anything, officially, to see. I went, in December (!) to write a story for the Montreal Gazette, where I was then a reporter. It takes forever to get to — jet from Montreal to Kujuuaq then into a very small plane, past the tree line, to Salluit, landing on a tiny, narrow ice/snow landing strip surrounded by frigid Arctic waters.
White knuckle city!
What made my very brief stay magical? There is only one color — white.
No trees. No vegetation. No animals (that I saw.) No city lights. No air pollution or car exhaust. No billboards.
Ice, snow, water.
Every minute, as the light shifted, that white became the palest shade of blue, purple, green, gray, mutating before us. It was pristine, mesmerizing, extraordinary.
Here’s a list by travel writer Paul Marshman, which inspired mine.
I loved this, from the late British writer A.A. Gill, from The Times:
The abiding pleasure of my life so far has been the opportunity to travel. It is also the single greatest gift of my affluent generation. We got to go around the globe relatively easily, cheaply and safely. Postwar children are the best and most widely travelled generation that has yet lived. We were given the world when it was varied, various and mostly welcoming.
Whether we took enough goodwill with us and brought back enough insight is debatable. But today the laziest gap-year student has probably seen more and been further than Livingstone, Stanley and Richard Burton.
One of the things that surprises and dismays me is how many of my contemporaries spend their time and money on travelling to sunny beaches. All beach experiences, give or take a cocktail, are the same experience. My advice to travellers and tourists is to avoid coasts and visit people. There is not a view in the world that is as exciting as a new city.
Some of many runners-up include: The Hudson Valley (my home), Ireland, Paris, Savannah, the British Columbia coastline.
We need beauty as much as we need food, water and air, whether it’s visual or auditory. Ignoring that fundamental need parches us.
In a time when so many people spend their lives staring at a screen, encountering beauty in real life — a flower, a bird, a sky filled with stars, a painting or piece of music — can be transformative.
We’re lucky to live in a small town — pop. 10,000 — 25 miles north of Manhattan, named one of the nation’s 10 prettiest by Forbes magazine. If you’ve seen the films Mona Lisa Smile, The Preacher’s Wife or The Good Shepherd, (one of my favorites), you’ve glimpsed our handsome main street in each of these, filled with Victorian-era shops and homes.
Our apartment has great views of the Hudson River, tree-tops, acres of sky and clouds. We savor spectacular sunsets and birdsong, butterflies and fireflies in the cool, green dusk.
In New York city, we have access to museums and art galleries and parks, grateful for every bit of it.
Here are some of the things I find beautiful, that nurture and calm me…
Beautiful architecture — this is Union Station in D.C.
Color, design, elegant neo-classical murals — part of the Library of Congress, in D.C.
Every patch of earth, if you kneel down and really look closely, is a tapestry of color, texture, growth and decay
More neo-classical fabulousness — this, a corner of Bryant Park, midtown Manhattan
I’m crazy about textiles — the purple floral is now curtains in our sitting room
Pattern is everywhere! This is in Soho, Manhattan — glass inserts to allow light into a basement of an early building there
Nothing unusual — lawn furniture in autumn — but I love the symmetry of it from above; this at Hovey Manor, Quebec
I love this painted tin wall, one of the shops on our main street in Tarrytown, NY
I love this view — Bucks County, Pennsylvania — out the window of a 1905 farmhouse a friend used to rent
Every year I wait with bated breath for this lilac tree near us to bloom. Swoon!
Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti — but its wooden houses are amazingly colored and cared for
Where in your daily life does beauty manifest itself?
An ongoing series of some of the simpler pleasures in my life…Hope they’ll inspire you.
Playing my vinyl, everything from Genesis to koto to Jacques Brel
It’s the weekend! It begins with the weekend Financial Times and the Saturday New York Times. Yes, we still read on paper .
The weekend FT is one of my favorite reads — global, witty, incisive. It’s very much a publication of the educated upper class and its various tastes and interests but it’s smart and interesting and much more global in outlook than the Times.
The FT magazine is called — without irony or embarrassment — How to Spend It. While 99% of it is directed to the wallets of the 1%, it’s fun to read.
There’s all kinds of beauty in our small suburban town, 25 miles north of Manhattan. You just have to look for it.
Looking through photos from past journeys while dreaming up the next ones…this image is from a cafe in Paris, taken on our visit there in December 2014.
Every morning and evening we get a different view of the Hudson River from our top-floor apartment on the sixth floor. Some mornings it’s so foggy we can’t see anything but the very closest tree-tops.
Silly treasure. If you don’t yet know about the Moomins, check it out! They’re a series of storybook characters from Finland.
Travel is our one consistent extravagance…My next trip is to Washington, D.C. mid-June for a three-day journalism fellowship. I’ll probably stay there a few extra days to relax and explore.
We had planned to visit Gros Morne in Newfoundland this summer but have postponed it for a year.
The lilacs are back!
I live for the moment when this spectacular tree, at the very start of our reservoir walk nearby, bursts into fragrant bloom.
Few scents are as intoxicating to me as lilac…you?
I love cooking, and reading through my various cookbooks for inspiration and ideas. This is a favorite, written by the sister of British actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
One of the things I love most about living in New York is ready access to iconic landmarks like these…
I snapped this one from the back seat of a cab traveling from Brooklyn to midtown. This is the Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River.
One of the great secrets of that bridge is that it would never have been completed without the intelligence and guts of a woman— Emily Roebling — to whom a plaque is affixed to one of the columns. Her father-in-law won the prestigious and highly-coveted commission to build it but died of tetanus.
His son, Washington, took over — and got sick from going into the underwater caissons too often. Emily took over the management of the final eleven years of its construction.
It really is a cathedral of sorts — Grand Central Terminal. Lots of great shopping and two restaurants under that glorious arched turquoise ceiling. Stop in for a drink and enjoy!
Looks a bit like snow-capped mountains, but it’s one of our two local boatyards, the boats shrink-wrapped during the long winter.
Jose and I have spent decades on this commuter train!
It’s a quick 38 minutes from our town into midtown Manhattan, with a gorgeous ride down the eastern edge of the Hudson River. The train itself is no great beauty, but it’s generally on time, safe, clean and semi-affordable.
I snapped this photo as I got off earlier this week, just as the sun was starting to set.
I hope you’re having a great weekend and enjoying some simple pleasures of your own!
Are you — fellow Northern Hemisphere folk — feeling as cabin feverish as I am?
In mid-winter, it’s either gray or rainy or windy or bitterly cold or the streets are too icy.
Today was a blessed 57 unseasonally warm degrees and out I went to enjoy the walk along the reservoir.
One of the things I love most about living somewhere for a long time is getting to know a landscape intimately, like the face of a dear friend or the hands of your sweetie.
I’ve walked the reservoir path, a paved mile in each direction, shaded the whole way by tall trees, for the past 27 years now, in all four seasons, alone and with my husband and, a long time ago, with my lovely little terrier, Petra, who died in June 1996.
Here’s some of what I saw, heard, smelled and savored today:
The stream is starting to rush again as the snow and ice melt
Trees are showing the tiniest bit of bud
Winter-weathered leaves rustle gently in the breeze, the soft creamy beige of a very good camel hair overcoat
The white flash of a swan’s bum as it digs into the lakebed
The tang of woodsmoke from someone’s chimney
Soft emerald moss, tossed like a velvet duvet
Strengthening sun gilding the edges of the forest
Vines clinging to weathered granite
The soothing lapping sound of water on rock at the lake’s edge
On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.
My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.
Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.
Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.
I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.
In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.
Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.
We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.
We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.
I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.
Self care can take many forms:
— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials
— dressing well
— a barbershop trim or shave
— regular medical and dental checkups
–– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself
— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)
— drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self
As some of you know from my previous posts, I’m obsessed with, addicted to…ahem..enjoy designing our home.
I studied interior design at the New York School of Interior Design, which has trained some of the best designers in the U.S., and learned a great deal about color, texture, materials and how to create a welcoming interior space. I had hoped to change careers from journalism but decided, for a variety of reasons, to continue as a writer, albeit one passionate, always, about beauty and assembling a space that’s both elegant and comfortable.
We live in a one-bedroom apartment that overlooks trees and the Hudson River. The building itself is nothing special. I find it pretty ugly, frankly — a 1960s red brick slab, six stories, with no architectural merit, even after 20+ years here.
But the landscaping is lovely, and we sit atop a high hill with great views…from our building’s southern exposure, (we face northwest), you can literally see the towers of lower Manhattan.
Inside our (nasty beige metal) door?
It’s English country house:
— layered textiles, a mix of old and new, of flea market finds and some valuable photos and antiques, my father’s oil paintings, my husband’s images and my photos, photos of us and our families, etchings and engravings, posters from Paris and Mexico and Australia…
Fresh flowers and plants, always!
I buy and read a range of design magazines, from Elle Decor, House Beautiful and Architectural Digest to Period Living, Country Living, House & Garden (all British) and, occasionally, one of the gorgeous Cote series from France or World of Interiors.
It’s one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon. And I learn something every time I read one — about color, tone, mixing things up, design history. Even if the home featured is, (and in the UK ones, it is sometimes!), a castle or enormous mansion, I always find some inspiration and sheer visual pleasure.
I haven’t lived in a house since 1988 when we rented a flat in a New Hampshire house. I often hanker for a house, (a small, old one — 1840s or earlier), but our finances don’t allow for a second home and I like where we live right now.
My esthetic is eclectic, a little bohemian, but polished.
I like bold and interesting prints (in small doses.) I like patina, craquelure, weathered wood (but immaculate walls, windows and sills.) I love candles in all shapes and sizes, from votives to pierced lanterns that show glorious shadows. Textiles, especially vintage or ethnic.
I find things affordably everywhere: flea markets, auctions, department stores, discount stores, consignment shops, thrift shops, garden supply stores. (Yes, I’ve even traveled with bubble wrap).
From London, Paris, Stockholm, Istanbul, Mexico, Toronto, I’ve brought home early ceramics, 18th century prints, a tray and even our bathroom sink — ($32, handmade copper) — from Mexico.
Over the decades, I’ve invested most heavily in a few fine case goods, (two armoires, three chests of drawers) and Jose and I both enjoy a small but good collection of classic photos.
I’ve furnished our home (with Jose’s approval!) as I do my wardrobe, a mix of vintage and new, classic and funky, some playful bits, some very good bits.
As fall arrives, here are some of the changes I’m making:
— Adding two lovely new fabrics, one for our headboard and the other for our bedside tables. I totally blew it on the scale of the check! But, you know what? Better bold than bitsy. (total cost $150.)
— An antique Chinese ginger jar lamp we recently found at an antiques dealer in Grafton, Ontario. It needed a new shade and cord.
— A dramatic new hallway rug, a kilim. I love these flatweaves, with their bold-but-faded colors and intricate designs; this one is striped: faded teal, faded carmine with a narrow black and white stripe. I found it roaming on-line; it will be shipped to us from Istanbul after they repair it.
— Switching out our art from summer, (pale colors and bleached frames), to winter: deeper hues, gold frames.
— Rehanging the Victorian mirror I scored in Ontario.
— Using deeper-toned pillows, table covers and rugs: reds, oranges, bits of black for drama.
As the days shorten and daylight so quickly fades and disappears, I wrap our home in color, texture, style and beauty.
Here in New York, winter lasts from November to March, at least, and we’ll soon miss the brilliant external colors of fall leaves and summer flowers.
Lucky you, readers in more tropical climes and countries — with gorgeous year-round greenery, flowers and and brightly colored birds!
My husband is a photographer and photo editor (here’s his wedding website and his blog), and we both work at home — so clutter, mess and ugly, especially in a small space, are too much!
Every day, our pretty home soothes and nurtures us both — and the people we welcome.
A piece in today’s New York Timeshas, so far, drawn 564 comments on the bizarre notion that a woman’s face is something total strangers can expect to make them feel happier:
RBF is now the topic of multiple “communities” on Facebook, dominated by women.
Plastic surgeons say they are fielding a growing number of requests from those who want to surgically correct their “permafrowns” (again, primarily from women).
The country star Kacey Musgraves recently helped Buzzfeed create a list of 17 more accurate names for RBF (among them, Resting “this wouldn’t bother you if I was a guy” face).
A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.
If you’re an American woman, the larger culture demands you be real friendly! all the damn time — and a woman who doesn’t walk through the world with a big fat reassuring smile plastered on her face is deemed angry, annoyed, frustrated and (wait for it), rude as a result.
I grew up in Canada, a British-inflected nation (see: stiff upper lip, emotional reticence, subdued expressions of feelings) where no one — thank God — expects you to be chatty and charming to every single person you meet. It’s exhausting!
I moved to the U.S. in 1989 and one of the biggest cultural adjustments I’ve made in the 25 years since then is the cultural norm of being genial to strangers. Why, exactly, is never made clear.
It’s just a cultural norm. I still don’t feel compelled to be “friendly” to anyone, and don’t feel compelled to apologize for not doing it. Civil, polite — of course!
Beyond that? I conserve my emotional energy for situations I think require it.
It was much worse in the 2.5 years (Merry damn Christmas, already!) I worked retail as a sales associate for The North Face, working in a suburban New York mall, serving customers who were often extremely wealthy and whose behavioral expectations were off the charts. Surrounded daily by minions they’d hired and could fire in a heartbeat — nannies, chauffeurs, au pairs, maids or their workplace employees — they were positively stunned when we dared to utter a one-syllable word to them.
As in, “No, we don’t have that jacket in your size/color.”
The only way to soften the terrible blow of their delayed gratification was by offering an automatic huge smile and a heartfelt apology — all on low wages. (This is called emotional labor and it is, very much, a thing.)
I know I’ve got a severe case of BRF and I’ve even addressed it explicitly in job interviews because when I concentrate hard I don’t always keep eye contact (bad) let alone I fail to smile reassuringly (even worse) at the person trying to decide if I’m likeable enough to hire.
One reason I work freelance alone at home!
I have no doubt my lack of reflexive emotional appeasement helped tank some of my student evaluations this past year when I taught at a very expensive private college in Brooklyn. I don’t smile a lot. I don’t make an effort to ingratiate myself. I have a sense of humor and love to laugh, in the classroom and outside of it.
But sticking on a fake smile to soothe people for no apparent reason? No.
To me, learning is a serious business and those who feel cheated without fake bonhomie are a poor fit for my style.
So to tell women walking down the street, or buying groceries, or chairing a meeting or sitting on a park bench, “Smile, honey!” is a normal grotesquerie for many of us. Because, somehow, if we’re not making you feel better about yourself, we’re failing you.