I have my new passport in hand now — and it’s good for ten years.
I hope I am!
Acquiring a new passport really is an exercise in optimism, as international travel, (all travel, really) always requires three key elements:
Jose and I are now at an age we read the obituaries and keep finding people our age, and younger, who have lost their lives prematurely, most often to cancer and heart attacks. We pray for continued good health, without which travel — let alone anything else — is out of the question.
This is such a privilege!
So many people work in jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, that allow them little to no paid time off, or are too scared to actually take their paid vacation or — worst — insist in answering work-related demands even while they are supposed to be resting and recharging.
Jose and I both work full-time freelance and are only paid when we work; i.e. no paid vacation days, ever. Every day we take off without pay means we have to make it up somehow, since our overhead costs are fixed.
Another mark of privilege.
Many people just can’t afford to go anywhere a passport is needed, i.e. to leave the United States (or their home country) — poorly paid or unemployed or beggared by debt service.
We don’t have children or dependent relatives, so we have more options in this regard.
Of course, travel and adventure can also be found and enjoyed close(r) to hand, exploring your own neighborhood, town/city/state/province. Both my native Canada and adopted U.S. are enormous, tremendously varied and filled with alluring places to visit.
The places in Canada I still want to see include Newfoundland, P.E.I. and some more of the Far North.
In the U.S., I hope to visit Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and several more national parks. I really want to do a driving trip the length of California. I’d like to visit Portland, Oregon, where we have several good friends.
It’s a very long list of places I’ve yet to see, including Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, South Africa, Namibia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, islands of the South Pacific, Antarctica, Lebanon, Greece, Croatia, Finland, Iceland and Morocco.
I’m on an airplane today, for the first time in almost a year, the last time also headed back to the city where I grew up and lived for 25 years, Toronto, a 90-minute flight from New York.
Last June I flew up for only three days, (a splurge we couldn’t really afford), to attend the wedding reception of a dear old friend, marrying at 70. It was an elegant crowd, many of the guests sporting a tiny white enamel flower lapel pin — a signal to the cognoscenti that they had won the Order of Canada.
This time I’m heading north to renew my passport and to take a badly needed break from work, from the U.S. and from the daily stress of life under a President whose behavior leaves me, at this point, adjectivally challenged.
I don’t really miss Toronto as a city. Housing is very expensive and often not of great quality. Winters are long, cold and gray (or grey, as Canadians spell it.) Traffic is now monstrous.
But I do miss my dear friends, people I’ve known since summer camp and high school and university and my first newspaper job. I’ve stayed in close touch with them and can’t wait to see them again.
I’m also planning an extensive — six week — trip to Europe, beginning in early June to celebrate my birthday (again!) in Paris with my husband and some friends who live there and some friends who’ll come over from London to share our rented apartment. (I’ll be blowing through some savings. Gulp!)
I’ll have one week there with Jose, who then flies home to photo edit a major golf tournament in Wisconsin. We’ve been to Paris together several times, usually staying in a rented apartment on the Ile St. Louis, (this time in the Marais.)
I know the city well, having been many times and having lived there for eight months on a journalism fellowship.
Then I’ll head off solo to wander, something I’ve done many times before.
I know people in various parts of the world, so that even new-to-me places like Berlin contain people I’m eager to finally meet, like this blogger and two Twitter pals, one of them an archeologist.
From Berlin, I’ll head to Budapest to meet up with my best friend from university and one of her grown daughters.
I’m also looking forward to visiting and writing about Korda Studios, near Budapest, one of the largest sound stages in Europe — where The Martian was filmed.
One of the fun things about being a journalist is that I sometimes find great stories to write about while traveling, and can then deduct some of my travel costs while working there as legitimate business expenses.
After Budapest…not sure yet!
I’ll finish up that trip with a visit to my friend C in London, who writes the fab blog Small Dog Syndrome. We share passions for several things, including beauty products, great food and vintage clothes. We had a blast the last time roaming Bermondsey Market and a few flea markets.
Another friend has moved there, so I’ll have another playmate; it’s a real luxury to travel and to re-connect with pals abroad.
In 2016, I only left home for six days’ vacation; three in D.C. and three in Toronto, all in June — not enough for me, having so far been to 38 countries, 38 American states and most of Canada.
I love to savor the familiarity of beloved old haunts and the excitement of making new discoveries.
Are you heading out into the world on an adventure this year?
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.
As the furthest northeastern state in the U.S. with only a few regional airports, it’s probably not high on the list of Europeans or Canadians on their first-ever visit to the U.S. but it’s so well worth it, even with the hours and hours of driving on winding country roads that its coastal geography requires — getting almost anywhere can take 30 to 45 minutes, even if it’s only 10 miles or so.
But such gorgeous landscapes.
We’ve been staying in a tiny town called Brooklin, home to Wooden Boat magazine, to several boat-builders, including the grandson of legendary American writer E.B. White, and to Franklin Roosevelt, the American President’s great grandson.
We were last up here about six years ago, visiting our New York friend who owns a rambling 19th century farmhouse here. I love, and am so grateful for, the privilege of settling into an easy and relaxed week of bare feet, a lit woodstove on a rainy evening, nights of total silence, the cold, clean ocean a quick bike ride away.
The kind of place I can leave my bike outside unlocked while I get a library card and take out a few thrillers.
We cook and eat and sleep in and read and play gin rummy. We dry our clothes on a long clothesline. We eat dinner on a long screened-in porch (mosquitoes!)
Turned out our friend’s next-door neighbor knew my father, visiting from Canada, 30 years ago in small-town Nova Scotia. The world can feel very small!
Brooklin has a beautiful small library, a general store, a few shops and…that’s it. It’s on the Blue Hill peninsula, a mix — fairly typical of coastal Maine, at least mid-coast — of wealthy second (third and fourth) homeowners from as far south as Virgina and Florida and locals working as lobstermen, clammers and running local businesses.
Blue Hill is a town where you can buy a $300 sweater or $8/pound tomatoes — or just sit and stare at the harbor.
Ignore everyone’s advice, including the guidebook(s) Really? Maybe. We use Fodor’s and read stuff on-line and read some travel stories before/during our travels, but so often the things that have given us the greatest pleasure are not mentioned anywhere while everyone insists you must do atonofthingsthatdonotinterestyouintheslightest! For example, our very first night in Dublin on our own, Jose found a quiet, simple restaurant a block from our hotel. Great food, good prices, dead quiet, Mamma Mia.
Of course, we have tried other activities and restaurants mentioned by the guidebook, but one of the best days we’ve had here was a day-trip (15 minute ferry ride) to the island of Arranmore, with not a word about it in our guidebook. I am a Very Bad Tourist. I loathe crowds, standing in line, crowds, others tourists, heat. There are only so many statues/monuments/buildings/museums I can take (and it’s shockingly few.) That alone rules out a lot of official sights we are urged to get to. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s your vacation.
Do what makes you happiest, not ticking off a list to please other people! Posting your trip as you go on social media, if your friends are well-traveled, will elicit a shit-ton of advice.
Ignore it as needed.
Prepare for surprise budget-busters In Dublin, there are only two tram lines and, yes, plenty of city buses. But no (?!) printed bus map, a basic asset in New York City, for example, with which to plan your day. So we’ve been taking taxis everywhere. The good news? They are plentiful and cheap. But not a cost I had planned on.
In other cities, it might be the cost of loads of laundry or shoe repair or a doctor’s visit — or all of these. Allow for some surprise costs. Enjoy some local services
Jose got a great five-euro haircut in Dungloe. He did the same when we were in Cuernavaca. I’ve treated myself to massages and salon visits in Paris.
Use local transit — bus, trains, commuter trains and subway
We took the train north to Belfast (2.25 hours one way) and were thrilled with how clean, quiet and quick it was. You’ll get a much better feel for how life is lived locally if you’re sharing transport with natives, whether a matatu in Kenya, a tuktuk in Bangkok, a shared taxi in my hometown of Tarrytown, NY or atop one of London’s double deckers. Our many long bus rides across Mexico were a highlight of our vacation there.
Get out of town! Especially if you’re traveling in summer heat and humidity, cities anywhere can quickly feel exhausting, dirty, smelly and oppressive. Almost every city has a beach or some green hills nearby; from Manhattan, a 40-minute train ride straight up the edge of the Hudson River is cheap and gorgeous and drops you off in our town. Within a half-hour of Dublin are gorgeous beaches and waterfront in one direction, the Wicklow hills in another. In Toronto, take the ferry across the harbor to the Islands and spend a glorious day biking through the parks. Sit on a patch of green or sand and just…breathe.Read the local papers, in print
If you’ve got language skills, use them! If you’re in an English-speaking country, there’s no better way to really get a feel for what people around you care about right now than reading the letters to the editor, op-eds, editorials and — oh, yeah — the news and feature stories. Don’t stick to CNN. The whole point of fleeing your native culture is to immerse yourself in another.
Bring (and collect) business cards
Yes, really. We’ve handed them out to all sorts of people along the way, some social, some for business. You may want to re-connect with people and they with you. Yes, social media are great. But a well-designed business card carries a professional formality some will really appreciate. (Like Japan.)
You will, occasionally at best, be disappointed. It’s no big deal!
It happens: the food was too spicy (or not spicy enough) or the service was bad or the bed was too small or the room too noisy. Change whatever you can, (without being an Ugly Tourist!), and go with the flow as much as possible. A vacation in a foreign place means adapting to all sorts of things, some of which you’ll enjoy more (or less) than others. Moderate your expectations and do your homework.
Make local friends
Thanks to my blog and to Jose’s use of social media, we’ve made some terrific new friends by being a little brave and open to the idea. In Paris in December and January, I loved meeting up with four of my blog readers, Juliet, Mallory, Gillian and Catherine — all of whom were only virtual friends until we all made the effort to get together. It might have been terrible! But it wasn’t. In Dublin, Jose and I met up with a local photographer and his wife that he had met through Facebook. We had a great time.
Shop for souvenirs in the least-likely places
Yes, you can easily buy a snow globe or a linen tea towel or an Eiffel tower. But why not head off the beaten path and check out local pharmacies, hardware and grocery stores, sporting goods stores and other less-predictable venues for interesting and offbeat souvenirs and gifts?
We still use a polka-dotted apron we bought in Paris at BHV, a major department store and a bright-green enamel corkscrew from a local wine shop there. I use a white enamel pen I bought down the street from our Paris flat.
I treasure the Corsican polyphonic music a man there gave me as a gift, and listen to I Muvrini often. You might find a fantastic skin care line or a great bag of spices or a fantastic cheese knife. In Ireland you could bring home a hurling ball — a sliotar. Ah, go on!
I’m writing this from a gorgeous hotel in Dublin called The Schoolhouse, which was converted from a red-brick Victorian schoolhouse into a hotel with a small, lovely garden. Jose and I are here for seven nights.
As you can see, we prefer places the Irish would call characterful to the mass-market chains — places that are small, intimate, quirky and historic. We typically rent or borrow an apartment when in Paris or are lucky enough to stay with friends.
Having — so far — been to 39 countries, and often on a tight budget, I’ve learned how to have a great time out there, whether a road trip near home or a long-haul flight away.
Here, a few tips; we have no children, so these are likely most useful for people without them.
What do you want most from your vacation?
I think this question is the single most important of all. If all you really want to do is slarb out, sleep/eat/read/repeat, own it! Nor do you have to head to a beach to enjoy a lazy time of it. It might be a cottage in the woods or a luxury hotel or a rented flat. If your partner/spouse/BFF wants to be up at dawn and hitting all the official sights the second they open, how will that affect your vision of happy time off?
A full, frank discussion before you start booking lodging or travel is a good idea. Few things are more miserable than arriving somewhere with a person, (or a crowd), with wholly different notions of what “holiday” means.
What makes your pulse race?
For me, it’s armloads of natural beauty — so places like the Grand Canyon and Thailand and the coast of British Columbia, not to mention Ireland! — fit the bill perfectly. But I’m also a big city girl, and love to shop, eat, sit in a cafe and people-watch for hours. So my perfect vacation combines both. Your great love might be the craps table or flea markets or museums or a cooking class or…
Fewer/slower beats seeingeverythingallatonce!
I realize that, for many people, a distant journey might truly be once in a lifetime, so the compulsion to try and see and experience everything is a strong one. Resist it!
Our three weeks in Ireland, which is my fifth time here and my husband’s first, has included only two stops, Dublin and Donegal. The Oklahoma couple stepping into our rental car reeled off the list of their destinations and it made me dizzy. I loved getting to know Donegal much better, and doing quick day trips — an hour each way or so — from home base, (a rented cottage), easily allowed for that.
Know/respect your own typical rhythms and those of your travel companion(s)
Few things are as nasty as fighting endlessly on vacation, a limited time as it is, about who’s sleeping in too late, “wasting” hours on a late-afternoon nap or partying too late into the wee hours.
Jose and I often take a “toes up” while traveling to recharge us after a day out before heading out again for dinner. On this trip, we bought a small bottle of gin, cans of tonic water and even a few lemons. Nothing like a shower and a fresh G & T in the room at day’s end! We also bought biscuits, nuts, dried fruit and fresh fruit so we had some healthy snacks waiting for us.
If you long for a lazy lie-in and an hour’s bath, do it! Dragging yourself all over the place to satisfy someone else’s schedule, or your own expectations of doingitallorelse! is no fun.
Pack lightly, and carefully
Especially in Europe and in smaller hotels, (i.e. no bellhops), you’ll be humping your own baggage, whether up and down the London Tube stairs or across a cobble-stoned street. Ireland is known for offering all four seasons every day, even in summer, so I packed light wool cardigans and plenty of over-sized scarves while Jose layered cotton T-shirts beneath his dress shirts. Unless you’re in the wilderness or a very poor country — (both can make great vacations, obviously) — you can likely buy whatever else you need in-country. My bag was six kilos under the allowed weight on the way over to Ireland, and I planned to ditch several books here. I knew I’d also be shopping!
It’s tempting to spend your precious vacation driving long distances every day and/or racing from one tourist site to the next. I saw a fellow guest here with a very long list in his hand. Sigh. We had only six days in Donegal and a very ambitious list of what we hoped to see. Hah! Instead, we enjoyed lazy mornings and headed out at 11:00 or so for lunch and exploration; daylight til 10:30 pm helped.
But there is much left to see, even in that one county, and we’re already planning a return trip. On our one rainy, cloudy day I read, painted, snoozed.
The whole point of vacation is to restore, refresh and recharge our work-weary souls.
Consider renting a place
We don’t use Air B & B but have rented apartments in Paris and a cottage in Ireland. It’s great to shop local food markets, get to know the local baker/butcher/produce store and see what different products are on offer in the grocery stores.
Washed Roosters?! It’s a potato.
Aubergine = eggplant.
I also like being able to cook breakfast and dinner at home, which is both cheap and healthy; our groceries for a week (in which we also ate out), were 70 euros which bought so much food we took some away with us when we left.
Being able to do loads of laundry, even daily as needed, saves a fortune on hotel laundry costs and allows you to pack much less. (More shopping!)
Leave room for serendipity
Highlight of this trip?
An unplanned exhausting/exhiliarating golf game with two retired schoolteachers on a links course on Cruit Island, (pronounced Crutch); if we’d had a rigidly-planned schedule and insisted on sticking to it, we’d never have had this amazing experience. It was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever had on the road: spectacular scenery, 2.5 hours of vigorous/fun exercise, making new friends, experiencing one of the most Irish of sports — links golf, (from an old English word for ridge, hlinc.)
Another night we headed to Dungloe’s Corner Bar, and ended up listening to one of the nation’s top musicians who just happened to be in the bar that night.
In Dublin, where the flea market is held only one day a month, it was the one Sunday we were here. Yay! I scored a gorgeous plum-colored wool sweater (five euros), an antique Rajasthani mirrored bag (10 euros) and a set of five silver-plate forks for five euros.
Make time for yourself, all alone
If you’re dying for a haircut, massage, mani-pedi or some shopping, do it. By yourself. Maybe you’d rather take photos or just sit still and read a book, magazine, email or newspaper. Jose and I already share a small apartment and now both work from from home — so three weeks’ vacation joined at the hip can feel a bit oppressive.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a day or two off from your companion(s) — or vice versa — and coming back with fresh stories and photos to share.
Sit still and just be (there)
In a world of constant connection, turn off your bloody phone!
Ignore email/Twitter/Instagram/your blog.
The only way to truly savor where you are is to be there. To remain fully present. To sit in total silence, whenever possible.
One afternoon, I spread out on the spongy vegetation of Arranmore Island and just napped. I sat on the edge of a cliff and stared at the gulls below me, the waves crashing against the rocks, the bobbing orange lobster-pot markers.
I treasure the combination of a blessedly-emptied mind and eyes filled with beauty.
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.
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?
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.
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:
— 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.
You also have to pay attention to danger, from subway pickpockets to forgetting your address or house entry code.
— 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
— 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!
— 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!
— 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.
— 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.
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.
Here’s a smart story from the Washington Post about why we all really do need to take vacations:
The image that stands out most in my mind during the broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics? The Cadillac commercial with a boxy, middle-aged white guy in a fancy house striding purposefully from his luxurious swimming pool to his $75,000 luxury Cadillac ELR parked out front while extolling the virtues of hard work, American style.
“Why do we work so hard? For stuff?” actor Neal McDonough asks in the commercial that has been playing without cease. “Other countries work. They stroll home. They stop by a café. They take the entire month of August off. “Off,” he says again, to reinforce the point….
Americans are caught up in what economist Juliet Schor calls a vicious cycle of “work-and-spend” – caught on a time-sucking treadmill of more spending, more stuff, more debt, stagnant wages, higher costs and more work to pay for it all…
American leisure? Don’t let the averages fool you, he could say. While it looks like leisure time has gone up, time diaries show that leisure and sleep time have gone up steeply since 1985 for those with less than a high school degree. Why? They’re becoming unemployed or underemployed. And leisure and sleep time for the college educated, the ones working those crazy extreme hours, has fallen steeply.
One of the weird things about Americans is their endless obsession with being productive.
A woman I know — who at 33, has already produced three children and three books — has turned this obsession with spending every minute usefully into a thriving career, suggesting multiple ways for us to be more efficient with our time.
I get her exhortatory emails, but just reading them makes me want to take a nose-thumbing nap, or an 8-week beach vacation.
You know what they call the sort of cough that horks up a ton of phlegm?
But visible professional success is seductive — here’s White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett:
She’s out the door at 5:15 a.m. She arrives at the White House at 5:22 a.m. and hits the gym (where she assures me she watches Morning Joe!) before meeting with the rest of the White House senior staff at 7:45 a.m. on the dot. She tries to get home before 10 p.m.
“I have to force myself to go to bed and I jump out of bed in the morning, which is a good sign, I think,” she said. “You always have to pursue a career that you care passionately about so that it will not burn you out.”
Would you be willing to work her 13-14-hour day?
I grew up in Canada, and left when I was 30. I moved to the U.S., eager to taste a new country and its culture.
The first major difference? Two weeks’ vacation a year, if you’re lucky enough to even get paid vacation.
In Canada, I felt American — too aggressive, too ambitious, too direct in my speech. But in the U.S., because I also want to take off four to six weeks’ off a year — to travel, to read, to rest, to recharge — I’m wayyyyyy too European. i.e. soft, flabby, lacking the requisite drive to get ahead, gain even more social and professional status and buy tons of more/bigger/newer stuff.
Working hard 24/7 isn’t the best way to spend my life. I’ve been working for pay since I started life-guarding part-time in high school. It’s essential to earn and save money, of course. And it’s pleasant to have enough to enjoy life beyond the basic necessities.
But after a certain point….meh.
I work my ass off when I am working. But I bring an equal hunger for leisure and downtime — like many people, I just get stupid and bitchy when I’m exhausted and haven’t had enough time for myself.
I also love to travel, whether back to familiar and well-loved places like Paris, or the many places I still haven’t seen yet, some of them a $1,000+ long-haul flight away: Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Argentina.
A four-day weekend — which many worn-out Americans answering emails 24/7 now consider a vacation — just isn’t enough.
Here’s my friend and colleague Minda Zetlin on 10 dangers of overwork, from Inc.:
3. You suck when it counts.
I can tell you from experience that going into a meeting tired and distracted means you will suck in that meeting. You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.
4. Your mood is a buzzkill.
The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.
5. Your judgment is impaired.
The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.
When you have downtime, how do you relax and recharge?
Here’s a beautiful post by a young woman, chosen for Freshly Pressed, about how she’s spending the holidays, without the traditional closeness of family:
We were browsing the greeting card aisle at Target the other day, looking for something to send my parents for Thanksgiving. The more I skimmed the contents of each card, the more discouraged I became.
Because it hurts to know millions of people all over the country will be sending cards that say things like, “Holidays are a time to appreciate loved ones…” or even better, “I’m so thankful to be spending this day with you…”
But I didn’t pick a card like that. I was relegated to a small selection of cards that read more along the lines of “Hope your holiday is __________.” Fill in the blank with words like blessed, enjoyable, and joyful. These are the neutral cards meant for acquaintances, distant relatives, or coworkers. All of the formality but none of the tenderness.
I just want to talk about this. I want to speak into the hearts of the people who struggle during the holidays as much as I do. Whether you’re estranged, cut off, or alienated the endless routine of the holiday season can sometimes be too much to bear.
That post cut me to the heart — as I, too, had just searched the card racks in vain for a birthday card for my mother, one without all the glitter and butterflies and saccharine emotion that has no relevance to our relationship.
We no longer even have a relationship.
My mother’s last card to me was several years ago, filled with anger. She now lives in one small room in a nursing home in a city that takes me 7 hours flying time to reach. I’m her only child, and she wants nothing to do with me.
The details are too complicated and grim and personal to get into here, although long-time readers of Broadside read a post that once explained some of it.
If you are fortunate enough to have a family that looks forward to spending time with one another, happy selecting gifts you know will please them, eager to cook festive meals and welcome them to your table — be thankful.
And please include those of us who don’t have a place to go to, as one friend did for me, one brutal Christmas Day some 15 years ago. My mother had come to New York to spend it with me, but Christmas Eve, (which already had some old and very painful memories for us both), had once more turned into a holocaust.
On Christmas Day, alone, I had nowhere to go and no one to be with.
My friend Curt, home from California visiting his parents in Pennsylvania, said: “Come!”
This season is a painful, aching one for many. We may be too shy or too proud to explain why we’re not going “home” for the holidays, the nasty details a thorn in our souls every day as it is.
And some people are grieving, this being their first Christmas without someone they adored — like this blog, written by a talented artist whose wife Leslie died six months ago. This post is heartbreaking, but describes what it feels like to approach Christmas for the first time as a widower.
The first Christmas after my husband left, in 1994, was deeply painful, but I got through it thanks to a dear friend and (yay!) a terrific new beau who reminded me there might actually be life worth living as a divorcee.
Luckily, I’ve spent the past 13 Christmases with my second husband, who thoughtfully chose Christmas Eve, (at midnight, snowing, after church) to propose, so that evening would newly represent a happy choice, not frightening old memories.
Home is where someone who loves you welcomes you with open arms, no matter who opens that door.
Please let your home be that place for someone feeling lost and lonely this year as well.
On day two of our vacation, we decided to visit the final day of the Picton County Fair, in Prince Edward County, about two hours east of Toronto.
It was one of those perfect fall afternoons — hot sunshine with a cool breeze.
— a lawnmower race (Jason plowed into a hay bale)
— a collection of antique tractors, including one from 1926 and this one from 1953
— the entries in the flower and food competitions
— some fantastic quilts, embroidery, crochet and hooked rugs
— a huge red $175,000 tractor
— a very stubborn goat who, when it was time to parade around the ring for the 4H contest, dug in his hooves, bleated and simply refused to budge
— some gorgeous vintage automobiles, including this one
Watching the four young girls posing with their goats was fascinating, as they moved, kneeling in the sawdust, from one side of their animal to the other, rearranged their goat’s legs for the best pose, and awaited the judge’s decision.
It takes a lot of poise and training to wrangle a small stubborn beast, and I admired their dedication. In New York, the girls would have been the ones preening and posing, nervously subject to dismissal.
Here, instead, they were in charge.
And we really liked the judge’s decision to hoist the stubborn one and move him into the ring to get on with it, already. He could have left its owner crying at the entrance, but he didn’t.
I loved seeing all the skills people here are proud of, whether growing a 74 pound pumpkin or hooking a rug…I couldn’t do any of them!
It’s humbling to be reminded how little city-folk generally know about how to care for animals or vegetables or fruit or how to create lovely things for your home. Instead, we buy stuff from enormous corporations, most of it made by low-wage labor in some distant Asian sweatshop.
The inn we chose is simply amazing, a square white building built in 1838 and moved to its current location a few years ago in numbered pieces, then re-constructed by a local historian.
A pair of Toronto lawyers have poured Godknowshowmuchmoney into renovating it, to perfection. It’s a little austere, but serene, all in calm, neutral colors: rust, cream, olive, black.
It has only four guest rooms, but we were the only people here for all three nights.
So we had this exquisite place all to ourselves: wide plank floors, some original glass in the windows casting bubbled and swirling shadows, a formal oil portrait in the hallway. I love looking out at the trees through ancient glass, wondering what others were thinking when they did so a century and a half ago.
The only sound we can hear is wind rustling the crisping leaves, blown from Lake Ontario across the street.
The front door handle is small, round, brass — even opening the door transports you to a different time and way of moving through space.
I imagine being a woman of the period, alighting from our carriage, and sweeping in with a wide, bustled skirt to a home with no electricity, wi-fi or telephone.
And the stars here are glorious, the Milky Way blessedly once more visible.