Six weeks away: assorted epiphanies

By Caitlin Kelly

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This was my longest break from work since 1988, (not including job-searching!)

It was the best possible birthday gift I could have given myself as I enter another decade, and with fewer ahead than behind me now.

Some of what it reminded, or taught me:

 

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The world is filled with kindness

 

Yes, we live in an era that can appear utterly savage: terrorism, racism, violence, economic inequality, grinding poverty. All of these exist and can destroy our hope, our belief, that there is also counter-balance, much active kindness and compassion.

I was so lucky and so grateful, even in the busiest and most crowded cities in the blistering heat of summer, to be treated with kindness by almost every single person I met. It was deeply moving to me, just one more random stranger amid the millions of tourists out there.

 

People’s lives are complicated — everywhere

 

When we go on vacation/holiday, we switch off from our daily cares, which is the whole point. It was powerful to hear of Europeans’ challenges, from the Venetian chambermaid whose wristband prompted our conversation (27 years lifting heavy mattresses had injured her) to the Croatian tour guide who told us his monthly wage is about $200, typical there, to my London friends and colleagues who are seeing some pernicious effects of Brexit already.

Listening at length means the world you’re passing through isn’t just some postcard.

It’s full of fellow human beings struggling as we do.

If you feel disconnected from the world, from others who seem so different from you, travel and speak and listen to them with an open heart and a healthy curiosity.

 

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Slowing down — and getting off-screen — is essential for mental health

 

I wish someone could put electrodes on my head right now as I can feel a major difference in my brain function and mood between when I left New York and how I’ve arrived home:

I didn’t listen to or read news.

I didn’t watch television or movies or listen to the radio.

I didn’t waste hours every day on-line attached to a screen and social media.

I didn’t consume two newspapers every day.

I interacted on-line maybe an hour a day.

Instead, I was outdoors in sunshine and nature, watching and listening to and connecting with people.

In real life.

Here’s a great recent essay about the value of sleep and silence.

 

So many stories!

 

I enjoyed the people I spoke with on my journey, from a woman at the Venice airport from Calcutta who’d traveled the world to the Romanian professor of anthropology I talked to on a bench in Zagreb to the young women who vividly recalled living through the Bosnian war as children.

Unless you get out into it, and speak to people, the rest of the world can feel very distant and literally invisible when you live in the enormous and self-centered United States, where “foreign” coverage of the world is shallow and the “news” forever dominated by American politics and violence.

 

 

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Working alone at home can render you a little feral

I’ve been working alone at home — no kids, no pets — since 2005 and rarely in a cafe or library, although our suburban New York town offers both.

Being surrounded by so many people in crowded cities reminded me what a hermit I’ve become. By the end of my journey, I was relieved to withdraw to silence and solitude.

But this trip also reminded me how stimulating and fun it is to meet new people, so this has shifted how I now think about spending more of my time in others’ company.

 

 

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Jose in our rented cottage in Donegal, June 2015

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

 

Having been with my husband for 17 years, and now both of us working from home much of the time, we can end up in one another’s pockets.

I missed the hell out of him on my trip!

There are some husbands who would freak out if their wife said: “Bye, honey! I’m traveling Europe alone for the next five weeks.” But we have the savings, I have the time off I need as someone self-employed — and he knows he married a restless globetrotter. Tethering someone like me to home/work is not w prudent decision.

 

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Routine is comforting — but deadening. Break it!

 

It feels good now to be home again and to enjoy my routines: the gym, the coffee shop, cooking, favorite television shows, two newspapers every morning thumping onto our apartment doorstep.

But it’s also deeply confining to keep doing the same old things the same old way, day after day, week after month after year. Only by cutting the cord to all of them could I envision — and in solitude really think through — some new ideas and ones I’m really excited about.

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If something makes you really happy, savor it now

 

I arrived home in New York to the terrible news that a local writer, someone whose work I’d seen for years — envying her Big Magazine bylines and steady, well-paid work for them — had died.

At 46.

Leaving three children and a husband.

With 1.5 months between her diagnosis and her death.

We have no idea, ever, how long we will live or how many more precious opportunities we will have to seize joy, to hold our sweetie’s hand, to cuddle our kids or pets, to connect deeply with work we still enioy.

Or to travel, even a bike ride or bus ride to a nearby and beloved beach or mountain-top or museum.

Travel makes me happier than anything else, ever, anywhere.

I’m so grateful for taking this time and having, for now, the health and the income to do it.

Nothing is guaranteed to us.

 

Do it now!

How to plan a perfect vacation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Toronto, March 2017

One new friend, a Zagreb travel agent, says: “A perfect vacation is one without expectations..”

She might be right.

When I plan a vacation I focus on what I, (and/or my husband), really want to do, (not what we see on social media or what’s “hot” this year) — informed by my participation in multiple weekly travel Twitterchats, and reading travel websites, blog posts and articles that offer specific ideas and inspiration.

Having been to 40 countries, I’m torn between visiting the familiar, like Ireland, (five visits), and France (many more), and seeking out new experiences.

Things to consider when planning your holiday:

For how long? (Will it be enough or will you get bored?)

Using what transportation?

With whom, (or alone?)

How much activity, and how much downtime?

How many (tiring) travel days and transfers?

What will you give up to stay on budget, (e.g. luxury hotels, taxis everywhere)?

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Washington, D.C. June 2016

 

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The Donegal cottage, 3 bedrooms, great views

“Perfect” for me includes:

 


 

Easy/safe/quick/affordable, (hello, $$$$$ London!), public transit in and around the city/town, ideally without cars or taxis. My favorite vacations involve no driving, unless it’s a road trip or touring.

— Making emotional connections. I travel out of curiosity, and having long conversations with a country’s residents is a great joy for me. I got to know two sisters in Croatia whose powerful memories of Zagreb being bombed are much more powerful to me than any lovely vista.

Kind and welcoming locals. I liked Berlin, but didn’t enjoy “Berliner schnauze”, a biting, sarcastic edge that’s quite common. Travel is disorienting enough and you can feel vulnerable, especially if you’re alone. Croatians have been terrific.

Healthy food at decent prices. Easy access to farmer’s markets, (in cities like Toronto, Paris, London, Zagreb, New York), can make a real difference to your budget and ability to eat well.

A climate with some variation. If it’s a sweltering 80 to 90+ degrees during the day, a drop of even 10 degrees and a breeze is a blessing. I can’t handle humidity; cold, for this Canadian, is not a problem.

Ready access to nature: lake, river, ocean, forest, parks, gardens. Too much concrete makes me feel ill, even on a city-focused trip.

Great shopping. I love finding items, styles and colors I just can’t get in New York (yes, really.). I treasure wearing and using them for years to come.

— Culture/design whether music, museums or just well-designed lighting, streetscapes and buildings.

Personal safety.  Especially in an era of terror attacks, I avoid crowds whenever possible and am extremely aware of my surroundings in large cities..

Fleeing American violence and toxic politics. I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1989, but am so sickened and embarrassed by its current politics and President I want to be as far away from of it as I can afford, and for as long as I can afford.

Nor do I want, on vacation, to be surrounded by Americans, so I choose places, and hotels, with a more international clientele.

While trying to relax, the last thing I want to think or talk about is American politics.

— History. The town I’m writing this in, Rovinj, Croatia, has buildings from the 16th century — and my hotel dates from the 18th and 17th, two buildings later combined. I’m happiest in places with a rich, accessible history.

Eastern Europe also offers something I’d never seen before — in Berlin, Budapest and Zagreb, museums of torture, places where its citizens suffered unspeakable crimes. History is filled with darkness, too.

Grace notes

Everything from the starched, spotless linen napkins and tablecloths in my Rovinj hotel to the oleander blossoms that fall onto my breakfast plate from the terrace’s overhanging trees. For me, touches of beauty and elegance make a place deeply memorable. 

— Rest!

It’s so tempting to gogogogogogogo. I finally lay in bed one afternoon and napped and listened, on the Internet, to my favorite weekend radio shows from NPR.

— A mix of solo and accompanied time

So many women are afraid to strike out alone, to eat alone, to walk alone.

I’ve done it in Istanbul, Spain, Mexico…

Dig through the archives here and you’ll find several posts detailing how to do it safely and enjoyably.

Ideally, I like a mix of vacation time both solo and accompanied; alone here, I’ve had terrific conversations with bus and train mates, at cafes and in shops and restaurants. These included two U of Texas accounting students; a Croatian art history major; a Romanian professor of environmental anthropology; an epee fencer, and an electrical engineer, both from Zagreb and an IBM exec — who I met smoking a hookah! — who’d worked for NGOs in Africa.

Even when I travel with my beloved husband, taking some daily time apart is essential.

 

Some of our best vacations have included:

 

• Our rented cottage in Dungloe, Donegal, in June 2015, (through this website), and the flat we rented twice on the Ile St. Louis in Paris (friends.)

• A five-week bus journey throughout Mexico in May 2005, including Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived as a teenager.

• Since our first visit in the fall of 2001, exhausted by covering the events of 9/11, we’ve returned six (!) times, so far, to Manoir Hovey, a resort on Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a 7-hour drive from our home in New York; elegant but not stuffy, welcoming, great food and lovely in every season.

 

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships

This European trip has offered virtually no disappointments, not bad for a month on the road through four countries so far. I chose a mix of larger and smaller cities, with a seaside break in Istria, Croatia.

I also chose three long train journeys — Paris-Berlin (7 hours), Berlin-Budapest (13 hours), Budapest-Zagreb (6 hours) —  in order to rest and see the countryside. I dislike flying, so this also reduced my stress.

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This trip’s two greatest surprise expenses?

Hotel laundry, (sweaty from walking all day in 80+ degree heat; one hotel even forbade hand washing!), and taxis, when my arthritic right knee gave out. I could have used laundromats, (as I have in Paris), but right now, free time is more precious to me.

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Lincoln Center, New York City

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Bucks County, Pennsylvania

 

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Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

 

Have you had it — or planned it — yet?

Visiting London, Paris or New York? Some helpful tips

By Caitlin Kelly

Remember to take a break -- and just enjoy being there!
Remember to take a break — and just enjoy being there!

I recently re-visited Paris, staying three weeks, and London, staying for one. I live just north of New York City, and have for decades, so know the city well as I am there several times a week.

As three of the most popular cities in the world for tourists — and enormous, bustling multi-borough metropolises — they’re also tricky, costly, tiring and confusing for the unwary or unprepared.

Here are 20 money-saving tips from a young woman who has traveled Europe on a budget; many of hers are the same as mine, like renting a home, walking everywhere and slowing down to truly savor your meals.

Here’s a super-trendy/stylish list of things to do/see/try in the Marais from lifestyle blog Lonny.

Here are a few of my tips…

Transportation

Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.

In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.

I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful. I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.

In Paris, you might take a horse-drawn carriage
In Paris, you might take a horse-drawn carriage

Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.

Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.

Spent my life on the Underground, using my Oyster card. Love this shadowy reference to Sherlock Holmes
Spent my life on the London Underground, using my Oyster card. Love this shadowy reference to Sherlock Holmes

Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!

When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!

This was our dinner for a few early nights at home...
This was our dinner for a few early nights at home…

Lodging

It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?

As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.

In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.

Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.

Shopping

A whole set of blog posts on its own!

If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.

All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.

Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!

 

Dress

These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”

Stop by this terrific chain store in Paris and select a few gorgeous scarves, for men and women
Stop by this terrific chain store in Paris and select a few gorgeous scarves, for men and women

Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.

Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.

Looking down the stairs at Fortnum & Mason, London
Looking down the stairs at Fortnum & Mason, London

London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.

Staying dry/warm

Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.

To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.

Oh, go on!
Oh, go on!

Eating and drinking

London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.

Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,

A cup of tea at the Ritz in London
A cup of tea at the Ritz in London

Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner.  For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!

New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.

Mix it up! In New York, dress to the nines and savor a cocktail at classic spots like Bemelman’s, The Campbell Apartment or the Oyster Bar. Go casual to a 100+-year-old bar like Fanelli’s , Old Town or the Landmark. The city also offers lovely, quiet tea-rooms like Bosie in the West Village and dozens of cafes. Head uptown to the Neue Galerie’s Cafe Sabarsky. Heaven!

For breakfast, head to Carmine Street and enjoy The Grey Dog.

Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.

When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up.  Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.

And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.

One of my Paris faves...
One of my Paris faves…

 Read about your city!

These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.

I treat myself each time to a new and quirky specialist guidebook; this one breaks huge, overwhelming London into its many villages. 

There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)

Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.

Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.

Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!

 

A month away — pleasure, leisure, lessons learned…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Done.

A month away from home, from work, from normal life — I will very much miss Europe and my friends there.

It’s not just being away from the tedium of home life or a long break from the grinding pace of work, but savoring a culture that more deeply values the things I care most about — not money or work or power, but food, beauty, intelligence, conversation, friends and family.

 

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I need to flee the United States a few times a year; a native Canadian who moved to the U.S. in 1989,  I’m burned out on its stalled and vicious partisan politics, growing income inequality and fervent attention to pop culture.

One of the reasons I’ve stayed freelance — which costs me income but allows me time — is to take as much time off as my budget allows. The world is too large and filled with adventures for me to sit still in one place for very long; some places I’m eager to get to in the next few years include Morocco, Turkey and Greece. (I’ve been to 39 countries so far.)

Why so long a break?

My most precious belonging!
My most precious belonging!

We were loaned a free Paris apartment for two weeks, which made it affordable given the cost of Christmas-boosted airfares. I stayed with friends in London for the next week, so the only housing cost was $1,200 for the rental of a large studio apartment for my final 8 nights; (hotels on the same street are charging about $190/night for a small single room, about $1,400/week.)

Plus meals, shopping, trainfare to/from London, transfers, taxis/subway.

I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic in five years on my last visit to Paris where, as we did here, we had rented an apartment, also on the Ile St. Louis, the small, quiet island in the middle of the Seine, and settled in for two weeks.

My definition of luxury is not owning a shiny new car or huge house, (and have never owned either one), but the time to really get to know another place for a while.

To sloooooooooow down and savor where I am.

I ate lunch in a favorite restaurant across the street from our 2009 apartment and bought a dress from a favorite shop in the Marais.

Les Fous de L'Ile. Allez-y!
Les Fous de L’Ile. Allez-y!

It’s a luxury to reconnect with the familiar in a foreign country.

In my final week in Paris, I dithered…should I rush around seeing museums, shop the sales and/or sleep late and lounge around my rental apartment, which is large and comfortable? (I did all of them.)

I also joined in the Unity March, the largest in France’s history, thrilled that I was here for it.

One very powerful memory I’m bringing home to New York?

How vivid and present, even today in 2015,  war still is in Paris.

Every street, it seems, has a plaque — often with a bunch of flowers attached to it — honoring Resistance heroes of WWII, their bravery now many decades past. Many schools, heartbreakingly, have a large plaque by their front door numbering how many of their children were taken away by the Nazis.

And there are at least four concurrent exhibitions in Paris devoted to aspects of WWII and WWI, from the Liberation of Paris (an astounding show) to one exploring collaboration with the Nazis. Having watched a 31-minute film there, from 1944, of the liberation, I’ll never again see Paris the same way — its lovely streets then filled with dead bodies and burning tanks, barricaded with trees and sewer gratings, women being dragged into the street for public shaving of their heads for collaborating with the Nazis.

A few things I’ve realized in my time away:

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Social capital can replace financial capital

Jose and I do OK for New York, but so much of it disappears in taxes, retirement savings and life in a costly place. So we’re very fortunate to have generous friends around the world who lend us and/or welcome us into their homes. I spent a week with Cadence and Jeff in London in their flat, whose total square footage is about 300 sf, the size of our living room and dining room at home. I don’t know how we managed it, but we did! While I’ve been here, Jose welcomed our young friend from Chicago, Alex, for a week and introduced him to several important new mentors and our friend Molly, from Arizona, has spent many happy nights on our sofa.

What goes around comes around, even globally!

Travel can be tiring

Exploring big, busy cities on a budget, (i.e. taxis are a rare treat), means hours of walking and many subway stairs. I get tired and dehydrated and needed a coffee or a glass of wine to just rest.

Rue des Archives
Rue des Archives

You also have to pay attention to danger, from subway pickpockets to forgetting your address or house entry code.

Sept. 18, 2011. Jose and I tie the knot!
Sept. 18, 2011. Jose and I tie the knot!

— I missed my husband!

My best friend. My confidant. My sweetie. He was here for a week. I’ve missed his company and laughter terribly and we Skyped a few times.

— Routines serve a useful purpose

At home in New York, I normally take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday morning and go for an hour’s brisk walk in the woods with my friend Pam on Wednesday mornings. Every weekend I read three newspapers, in print. I enjoy my little routines; as a full-time freelancer with no regular schedule, they ground me.

— But it felt so good to get away from them

I usually watch the nightly news at 6:30, but also hate how U.S.-centric and sentimental it is. In my time away, my only news sources were Twitter and the occasional newspaper — I didn’t turn on the TV once, didn’t miss it a bit and read three non-fiction books instead.

I’ve also loved spending 90% of my time in the real world and not glued to social media on the computer. I really loved not driving a car for an entire month; we live in the suburbs and I spend my NY life behind the wheel, tracking the price of gas. Tedious! A city vacation meant lots of walking, buses, trains and cabs. Healthier and much more fun.

— Less is plenty

I wore the same few clothes for a month, doing laundry once a week and it was eye-opening to see how little I really need.

Same for food. I bought fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, soup and yogurt; that plus a fresh baguette every two days supplied my cheap/delicious breakfasts and light suppers at home.

— Experiences beat stuff

— riding the Ferris wheel high above Les Tuileries on a warm and sunny Christmas Day in Paris

— helping to make French history by joining the Unity March on January 11, the largest gathering of Parisians (and others beyond the city) since WWII. Here’s my blog post about it, if you missed it.

— staying in a 15th century country inn in England, eating short ribs by the fire

— meeting a snappy young British journo I follow on Twitter who took me to a secret members-only club above a Soho restaurant. The room was dim, had two small dogs snoozing in lined wooden boxes and fragrant hyacinths on every table. Heaven!

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— a cup of tea at the Ritz in London and the (!) $30 cocktails Cadence, Jeff and I shared in its spectacular Art Deco bar. Worth it!

— my spendy New Year’s Eve, dinner at Paul Bert 6 with a good bottle of red wine. Here’s the blog post by Juliet, with photos, of our evening together.

— spending a cold gray Sunday afternoon in a hammam, a Paris spa with a Middle Eastern flavor

— We are who we are, no matter where in the world our body is

At home, I need a lot of sleep, minimally 8 to 10 hours a night. Just because there are a gazillion things to do and see while visiting Europe, I didn’t force myself to do asmuchashumanlypossible. I now have a painful arthritic left knee, so by day’s end I really needed to rest.

My final week in Paris I took long, lazy mornings listening to music, reading, eating breakfast, then headed out around noon for a big French lunch, (cheaper than dinner), errands and explorations.

— Cosy beats grand/ambitious, at least some of the time

It was so nice to come “home” to our rented flats and settle in for the evening with a glass of wine and my new favorite radio station, TSFjazz; check it out online! Our Christmas dinner was roast chicken at home at the kitchen table and it was perfect. On a rainy, windy day in Paris, I was almost at the museum door, but was just exhausted. I said the hell with it, cabbed home and instead of being a dutiful/weary tourist took a nap and did laundry. Much happier choice!

— Solitude is relaxing

My life in New York requires chasing people down for work and/or payment, teaching two college classes, maintaining a happy marriage — and paying close attention to everyone’s emotional state. Whew! Raised as an only child, I savor quiet time alone, at home or out in the world exploring on my own. It recharges me.

My independence is a muscle. It needs exercise!

— But social media has been a godsend

So many blogging blind dates!

In Paris, Mallory, Catherine and Juliet — all followers of this blog, once virtual strangers now friends — invited me to meet; Catherine en francais. I also met Gillian and Ruth, fellow American writers my age. In London, I met Josh and in Paris my oldest friend from my Toronto childhood, also visiting. I had a busier social life while alone overseas than I ever do at home.

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I’m increasingly ready to leave the U.S. and its brutally industrial work culture

One of my hosts’s many books is “La Seduction”, by New York Times journalist Elaine Sciolino, who sums up my feelings well:

“The French are proud masters of le plaisir; [pleasure], for their own gratification and as a useful tool to seduce others. They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on. They give themselves permission to fulfill a need for pleasure and and leisure that America’s hard-working, supercapitalist, abstinent culture often does not allow.”

I’ve come to loathe Americans’ fetish for “productivity” and self-denial. Pleasure and leisure are seen there with the same sort of suspicion as a felony offense. I hate that and always have.

Jose and I hope to retire to France, even part-time. Every visit back there confirms why…and I loved this recent post by Chelsea Fuss, a stylist from Portland, Oregon who sold all her things and has been on the road ever since, alone.

A longtime follower of Broadside, photographer Charlene Winfred, is doing the same thing.

An excerpt from Fuss’ terrific blog, {frolic!}:

Does your trip have a point? It seems like you are aimlessly wandering around?

Seeing the world enlightens me. This trip was about facing the nagging wanderlust that had been bugging me for years and getting back to gardening, hence the farm stays. I have a blurry picture of what it is I want to do at the end of this and am figuring it out along the way. I’ve told myself it’s ok not to be overly ambitious right now. I keep busy with work, creative projects, and soaking up my environment but it’s definitely a slower pace than I lived at home and I think that’s ok for me right now. Slowly but surely this vision is getting clearer. I have days when I feel like I am going backwards and I should be climbing the career ladder, but that’s usually when I am comparing myself to other people. For me, this is right, right now.

Where is home for you in the world?

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m writing this post from London, where I’m visiting for nine days, staying with Cadence, a fellow blogger who writes Small Dog Syndrome. She and her husband moved here a year ago and are settling into a city that — according to yesterday’s newspaper front page — is bursting at the seams.

I believe it!

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I just spent two weeks in Paris, another major city, but London feels really jammed to me. If one more person bumps into me with their body, backpack or suitcase, I may scream!

Cadence loves it here and hopes to stay here permanently.

She also spent much of her younger life — still in her late 20s — living all over the world in a military family: Belgium, England, Guam, Virginia, Germany.

It may well be that early exposure to the world through residence shapes us permanently for it; I was born in Vancouver, Canada; moved to London at two; to Toronto at five, to Montreal twice, to Mexico at 14, to Paris at 25, to New Hampshire at 30 and — finally! — to New York at 32.

I like having lived in five countries and speaking two foreign languages, French and Spanish. It makes me realize that every place has some kindness and welcome, but some are far better fits for me than others. I loathed rural New Hampshire, (no diversity, stuffy, no work available), and, much as I adore visiting Montreal, as a resident I hated its punishing taxes, long winter and high crime rate.

I like London, and have visited many times and lived here ages two to five. But I find its scale overwhelming and too often exhausting. I’m limiting my activities to one or two a day because of it…knowing I could do twice as much even in New York, where cabs are cheaper or Paris where Metro stops are a hell of a lot closer to one another — 548 metres apart on average.

I prefer Paris.

Which makes me wonder — what is it about a place, whether it’s a cabin in the woods, or a penthouse city apartment or a shared flat in a foreign country — that makes it feel (most) like home to us?

Maybe because I’m a journalist and my husband is a photographer and photo editor — or because we have fairly adventurous friends — we know many people, non-native, now living happily very far from where they were born or raised, in rural Austria, Shanghai, Eindhoven, Rome, South Africa, New Zealand, Paris, Plymouth, Cairo, Manhattan, Toronto, Rhode Island, Australia…

For me, Paris is the city I was welcomed at 25 into a prestigious, challenging and generous journalism fellowship that lasted eight months. So my memories of it are forever somewhat colored by nostalgia and gratitude for a life-changing experience and the warmth and love I felt during that time.

On my many visits back since then, though, I still feel the same way…more so than in New York (I moved to a NYC suburb in 1989).

More than Montreal, where I have lived twice, in my late 20s and when I was 12.

One of my favorite Toronto sights -- the ferry to the Islands
One of my favorite Toronto sights — the ferry to the Islands

More than Toronto, where I lived ages 5 to 30.

The place I feel at home is a combination of things: climate, the light, the way people speak and dress and behave, its political and economic and cultural values. It’s what things cost and how much of them I can actually afford.

It’s how quickly and easily I can navigate my way around by public transit, on foot, by car, by taxi, by bicycle.

It’s how much sunlight there is on a cold afternoon in February. How much humidity there is. How much it rains or snows — or doesn’t.

Basically, regardless of other circumstances, how happy are you when you wake up there every morning?

Even newly divorced, unemployed, lonely, I was glad to be living in New York.

The view from our NY balcony -- we have great river views
The view from our NY balcony — we have great river views

But also how much silence and natural beauty it also offers — parks and old trees and a river and lakes. (London beats Paris hollow on that score!)

History, and hopefully plenty of it, at least a few centuries’ worth, with buildings and streets filled with stories.

And yet…it needs to be open socially and professionally as well, which can be a tricky-to-crazy-frustrating combination if you arrive as an adult who didn’t attend the same schools, ages five through graduate school, as all your would-be new friends, colleagues and neighbors.

I moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, just in time for the first of three recessions in the ensuing 20 years. Not fun! I had to re-invent in every respect.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

But choosing to live in Tarrytown, which I love, has been a great decision; the town is 25 miles north of Manhattan, which I can reach within 40 minutes by train or car. We have a terrific quality of life for a decent price.

(Here’s a blog post I wrote about 20 reasons why I love living there.)

I chose New York for a variety of reasons:

— My mother was born there, so I had some curiosity about it

— It’s the center of American journalism and publishing, my field

— It’s New York!

— Culture, history, energy, art, architecture…all the urban stuff I enjoy

Having said that, and all due respect to the many other places in the U.S. that people love, I wouldn’t move within the U.S. It’s too hard to establish yourself in New York and the only other city that appeals to me is L.A. which my husband vetoed.

If we move when we retire, which we’re discussing, we’re trying to choose between my native Canada, France, his home state of New Mexico…or, if at all possible, some combination of these.

Jose misses his mountains and a sense of Hispanic community.

But I miss speaking French and I miss my Canadian friends.

How about you?

What makes home home for you?