10 reasons to travel alone

By Caitlin Kelly

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I went to say thank you and good-bye to one of the waitresses at my last hotel, and we chatted for a bit.

Then she exclaimed: “But…you’re alone!”

True.

I’d stayed a week at a 23-room historic hotel and I hadn’t seen anyone else there who was traveling solo.

In my time here in Europe, now five weeks, most of the travelers I’ve seen are in couples, or families, or packs of friends, whether teens or seniors.

I’m clearly an outlier, and I’m fine with that; my mother traveled the world alone for years and I spent four months alone traveling through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy at 23.

 

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy traveling solo, even (yes), while female:

 

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No one dictates my schedule

Unless it’s a travel day, and I have to meet a plane, train or bus on time, it’s no one’s business when I get up or go to bed or do anything. Total freedom is priceless to me.

No one is insisting we must do this or must see that

Again, if I want to retreat to my cool, quiet hotel room at mid-day to escape 90-degree heat, no one is having a (literal) meltdown or tantrum because they want to do something else.

I’ve missed all sorts of must-see’s and must-do’s on this trip, (all those museums! all those famous sites!), because I wanted to just rest and relax and see only what I want to see.

People can be much kinder than you’d expect

This trip has been savaged by a lot of right knee pain and right foot pain. It makes walking slow and painful. It makes stairs slow and painful. I also do poorly in heat, and everywhere people have been very kind, offering to help me with luggage or stairs.

 

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Pauly Saal, the Berlin restaurant where I met two new-to-me friends for lunch

 

Making new friends is easier

When you travel with others, their wants and needs, of course, matter to their enjoyment of their vacation. If you just want to sit and have a long conversation, sometimes even a short one, that can impede your companions’ progress.

I’ve really savored the long conversations I’ve had along the way, and have learned a lot about the places I’ve been.

I don’t want to just slide past, taking lots of photos.

And yet….

 

Silence is truly golden

When traveling solo, you don’t have to talk to anyone beyond the most basic questions. I can go an entire day without conversation, and what a relief that is.

As the waitress agreed, about having to be charming and social: “It’s exhausting!”

 

You’re present in a way that’s usually impossible when traveling with others

I’ve been amazed at how I just sit, still, for an hour. No book, no magazine or paper. No screens. Whether I’m watching someone in a cafe, or the local cats who shimmy down the garden trees, or admiring kids splashing into the Adriatic at sunset, I can pay all of it my full attention.

I’ve gotten some astounding photos at all times of day and night, able to see clearly without interruption or distraction. I spent one happy afternoon sketching and painting.

 

No fights!

I witnessed a furious mother and her mutinous little boy, (and his brother and their fed-up grandparents), at a table near me in Rovinj, a seaside resort in Croatia. It was clear they were all totally annoyed with this kid, and he with them.

Thank heaven it wasn’t me; having had some monumental arguments while very far from home — out alone with my father, my mother, my husband — I know how stressful that is since you all still have to get back into the same hotel or flat and/or the same means of transportation later anyway.

 

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Time to reflect

I’ve had all sorts of new-to-me ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work.

I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change  — and loving it.

 

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The trams in Zagreb — fast, cheap, efficient

 

You (re)-learn to be self-reliant

My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”...which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”

Solo travel turns you into that person, and quickly!

At 25, I won an EU journalism fellowship based in Paris that required four 10-day independent  reporting trips throughout Europe. No one was there to hold my hand or to show me stuff. I loved it!

Whether you’re madly calculating currency differences, (try 276 Hungarian forints to the U.S. dollar!) or trying to read a map in another language or making sure you’ve caught the right bus/train/boat heading in the right direction, it’s all up to you.

If it goes pear-shaped, (as the British would say), everywhere has some sort of medical care and usually someone who speaks English. Absolute worst case, you can contact your consulate or embassy for emergency help.

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The Washington, D.C. Metro

The self-confidence solo travel creates is fantastic, lasting and can inspire others to take the leap

I’ve been traveling alone since I was 17 and first crossed the U.S. border by train to attended a photo workshop — although I took my first flight alone, from Toronto to Antigua, at seven.

Once you realize how to navigate the world, and see that many people — like us — just want to make a living, help their kids and grandkids thrive, and to enjoy their lives as much as we do — it’s a much less intimidating place.

Yes, some spots are tougher than others, and some truly no-go zones for women alone. But fewer than you’d think.

 

Have you traveled alone?

 

How did you enjoy it?

 

The challenges of (in)dependence

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been gone from my home near New York City since June 2 and won’t be back from Europe until July 19; apart from two weeks with husband and friends, and 3 days with others, I’m on my own.

 

It’s been humbling to realize how many things and people I now rely upon to stay safe and healthy:

 

Electricity/wi-fi

 

Without which I can’t charge all devices and keep up with English language media.

 

Google!

 

Without its instant access to all the data I need in each new-to-me place, I’m not sure how I’d survive. (Unlike many of you, I’m not using my phone 24/7 with all the cool apps available; I don’t want to spend my life, on vacation, still attached to a screen. I also fear its theft or loss and overage fees.)

Whether how many forints to the dollar or a map of the city with tremendous detail or train schedules, it’s become essential.

 

A phone

 

I hate carrying and using a cellphone but was deeply grateful for it, (and an overseas plan) when my husband, after weeks of severe stomach pain, was at the doctor’s — our shared GP. I called him to hear the diagnosis, (thankfully, nothing serious), as he was in our doctor’s office.

With a six-hour time difference, communicating can be challenging — and worrying about my sweetie was horrific.

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Maps

 

Yes, really. I like a paper map I carry in my purse or pack. You have to quickly orient yourself, especially as a woman traveling alone, especially at night. It’s unwise to appear befuddled or lost.

Mobility

 

Hah! So much for that….While in Berlin, I rented a bike for 8 euros for a half day. Riders there whizzed past, with little to no warning — (no friendly, “Passing on the left!” or a ringing bell?!) — and I kept jamming my very damaged right knee as I jolted and stopped the bike to avoid getting hit or falling.

OUCH!

Now that knee, (bone on bone), is once more swollen and painful, and I’m wearing my brace and icing it and finally, in Budapest, was able to buy anti-inflammatory meds. But it’s put a damper on a six-week trip that, de facto, requires lots of walking and stairs. Taxis are expensive!

 

Language

I speak fluent French, so Paris was easy. Berlin is filled with people who speak excellent English and many words are pretty easy to figure out from context (they also offer English menus!) Hungarian and Croatian? Not so much! I felt absurdly proud in Budapest as, returning from dinner, my friends and I figured out which subway line to take, and had to change lines along the way.

 

Safe and Reliable Transportation

 

Without which, no travel!

Whether it’s a taxi, tram, subway, airplane or train, I need it to move at speed — and safely. My train journey from Budapest to Zagreb included a detour that had all of us moving into buses for a bit — track work — then transferring to a regional/commuter train for our final 20 minutes. It was handled efficiently, which was great.

As I was writing this post, I read (with horror), about a New York City subway derailment.

One friend recently flew all the way from our suburban New York town, Tarrytown, to the annual Leonard Cohen celebration on the Greek island of Hydra; the first leg of her very long return journey began by donkey!

 

Books

 

I don’t use a Kindle, so have been carrying a few books.

The first — A Little Life (loved it)  — got me to Berlin (left it at the hotel for a local friend); the second, an excellent biography of Angela Merkel got me through 10 days in Berlin. Now reading The Tender Bar, a memoir, with two more left.

When you’re alone, you need something to read!

 

Friends

 

I’m loving my journey and so glad I’ve taken so much time away from work.

But, I admit it, I miss my friends! Evenings are more challenging when you travel alone — I end up pretty pooped, (esp. with a sore knee), and don’t venture out very far again after a day of walking/limping.

So I’m still tweeting and Facebooking and emailing, even finally catching up with a photographer living nomadically, a longtime friend of the blog  who’s now home in Singapore.

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Husband

 

I’m a big baby, it turns out — I miss my husband!

Jose and I have been emailing a lot and have Skyped several times, to our mutual joy. Even 17 years into our marriage, I miss him terribly; we work in the same field, share many interests and normally talk to one another a lot.

I traveled alone at age of 23, for four months in Europe, and have traveled alone many times since. I do love it.

But…I miss my sweetie.

The challenge of making a big change

This is one of my favorite bloggers, Chelsea Fuss, a single woman who left a thriving floral design business in Portland, Oregon and who is now living in Lisbon.

Her blog, frolic, is a consistent joy: frank, lovely, wise.

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Where in the world will you go? What if it doesn’t work out? What if it does?!

Some of her thoughts on the challenges of changing your life, big-time, (of which there are five in her post):

1. Nothing is perfect. Often, when I engage in these sorts of conversations, people are looking for a magical answer, a perfect life. Nothing is perfect. As my brother likes to remind me, everything in life is a trade off. Whatever new life you are able to acquire, one thing is for sure, you will have a new set of challenges. Weigh the positives and negatives and be honest with yourself about what your priorities are and what you are willing to sacrifice to make your dreams real. For example, when I left my home base in Portland, I was giving up a creative community, a great location for operating my business, all of my current and potential clients, most of my business and the ambitions and goals I had for it, everything I owned! The list goes on! Some people might say, “You traded all that and more to work as a glorified slave?” It’s all in how you look at it. At the time, my priority was to get my hands in the earth, apprentice on organic farms (I volunteered on farms in exchange for room and board, cutting out the rent factor), see more of the world, meet new people, and mix things up a bit to see what happened. I actually had no end goal in sight. I ended up staying in Europe and moving to Lisbon. I got a whole new life, and a whole new set of problems, with my new-found-life and accomplished dreams.

Two bloggers I follow have done this as well; Cadence (an American in London) and Juliet, a Canadian in Paris.

I know many of you are immigrants or ex-pats; here’s a brand-new blog, by an American man now living in Bucharest.

I’ve cast off my former life a few times and…it’s terrifying!

OK, it was for me.

The first time, I was 25, and won an eight-month fellowship to Paris (!) to study, travel and work in a group of 28 journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35. I ditched a live-in boyfriend (willingly), my dog (sob), friends, family and a thriving freelance writing career I was sick to death of.

I was stuck in a cosy cocoon, but desperate for some wings.

It certainly gave me that!

I’d left my parents’ home at 19, and there I was, living for the first time in a college dorm room (tiny!) with bathrooms down the hall and a hyper-vigilant staff who grilled me when they thought I had “un clandestin” (i.e. a man) in my room.

I traveled alone (on reporting trips) to Sicily, Denmark and Amsterdam and spent eight days in a truck with a French driver going from Perpignan to Istanbul, still one of the best adventures of my  life.

I’m still good friends with some of the people from our fellowship.

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships, near Montreal

I did it again when I left my hometown of Toronto for a job in Montreal, where I’d once more be working en francais.

I loved my enormous top-floor apartment and quickly made new friends and met my first husband.

But the city was a poor fit for me, as was the newspaper I went to work for. Montreal, a charming place to visit, offered a brutally cold, snowy and interminable winter; very high taxes; limited professional opportunities, terrible public services and a much higher crime rate than Toronto.

I was gone within two years.

Off to a small town in New Hampshire to follow my first husband’s medical training there — but I had no job, no friends or family, and it was long before the Internet and its easy social and professional connections.

Then, two years after that, we moved to a town in the suburbs of New York City, just in time for a recession. Again, with no job, no family or friends and no alumni networks to lean on.

I had never lived in a small town before New Hampshire.

I had never lived in the suburbs before New York.

You can make a huge change.

Chelsea did. I did.

I know many people who have.

It takes guts, self-confidence, resilience.

Savings and good job skills are essential.

It may not work out at all as you’d hoped or planned; my first husband walked out the door (literally) barely two years after our wedding and promptly married a woman he worked with. That was very definitely not in my plans.

But here I am today, with a home, a town and a second husband that all make me happy that I made the move  — and that I toughed it out.

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Grand Central Station, NYC. One of my favorite things about living here.

Have you made a huge change in your life?

How did it turn out?

What happens when a woman wanders, alone…

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine going there alone!
Imagine going there alone!

By now, I may be the only woman who hasn’t yet read “Wild” the best-seller by Cheryl Strayed about her hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail alone; the film, starring Reese Witherspoon, was recently released.

I was intrigued by this piece about it in New York magazine:

Granted, men, too, sometimes seek out extreme environments in response to psychic wounds, in life as well as in literature. But for them, the wound is optional; men are free to undertake an adventure without needing trauma (or anything else) to legitimize it. By contrast, a woman’s decision to detach herself from conventional society always requires justification. Women can, of course, go out exploring for pleasure or work or intellectual curiosity or the good of humanity or just for the hell of it — but we can’t count to ten before someone asks if we miss our family, or accuses us of abandoning our domestic obligations.

I’ll soon be alone in Europe for several weeks, the first time I’ve been there alone in a long time. I’m excited. I love my husband, our home, the college students I teach, but to live untethered! Even for a while…

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My mother, now sadly confined to a small room in a nursing home, spent years traveling the world alone — from Afghanistan to India to Peru to the South Pacific. Freed from the need to work for a living or own property, with only one (grown) child and no husband or partner, the world was literally hers for the taking.

She taught me, by example, to behave appropriately when in other cultures (I wore long skirts in Tunisia and a wedding ring in Istanbul); to manage frugally; to tuck a chair beneath the door handle in a dicey hotel.

To  just…go!

It’s a life-changing experience for a girl or woman to travel alone — and yes, I’m very aware, this is a real privilege — having the money to do so, the mobility to do so safely, the freedom from family responsibilities and/or even paid vacation from your job, something Americans still (!) have no legal right to.

(As a full-time freelancer, I make this sort of time off a major priority above any other sort of spending and can take as much time, as often as I want, as I and my business can afford.)

My most precious belonging!
My most precious belonging!

Some women are eager to travel, and some prefer the ease, freedom and solitude of doing it alone. (Others find the notion terrifying and don’t even eat out or go to a movie by themselves when living in their own country.)

Almost every day since I posted them, readers have come to these posts about how to travel safely alone while female. Here’s one — the 10 lessons you’ll learn by traveling alone.

And this, with twelve tips for doing so safely and enjoyably. (I’ve been to 39 countries, many of them alone, including Turkey, Kenya, Mexico.)

I traveled alone for four months when I was 22, after graduating from university. I flew from my home in Toronto into Lisbon in March, spent a few weeks traveling through Evora and Beja, then crossed into Spain at Huelva, meeting a gorgeous young British man standing on the train platform. We spent two weeks on the road together in Spain before I went on to Venice and Florence alone, then back to France, Spain and Lisbon for my return flight.

Such adventures!

The kind one can only have — and allow for — when alone:

The Frenchman who met me aboard a ferry back from Ibiza who invited me back to his family’s apartment for a few days.

The German journalist in Barcelona who lent me her weekend home in Sitges.

The young Portuguese couple heading home to Lisbon who — yes, really — invited me into their Lisbon apartment the week of their wedding and asked me to photograph it. (I did.)

One of my favorite books of all time, recently also made into a film, is “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson, who wandered across the Australian outback in 1977, journeying with her dog and four camels.

Or consider Isabella Bird or Gertrude Bell or Nellie Bly…brave women of much earlier generations who ventured into the world.

It is deeply freeing (in many places, not all!) for a woman to wander, and to wander alone.

Women, in many places, are inevitably bound by social conventions; in some countries, if you’re out in public without a husband, child or parent, you’re considered fair game for sexual approaches, or worse.

But we’re so often judged as valuable solely by our tireless service to others — the woman who wanders off alone is often derided as selfish.

How dare she!?

The very first time Broadside was chosen for Freshly Pressed was this, my defense of Elizabeth Gilbert and her best-seller “Eat, Pray Love” — another paean to a woman’s journey of global and self-exploration.

As I wrote then, I think the chicken-necking and finger-waving was deeply, viciously envious:

Her choice challenges safer, more conventional choices. Instead of demonizing her free spirit, why not celebrate it? We can’t. What if everyone behaved that way?

What indeed?

I loved The Motorcycle Diaries and Easy Rider, two terrific films about two men exploring the world on their motorbikes.

Guys are allowed this freedom. We expect it of them.

Look at Thelma and Louise, a raucous road movie  — until the women have to drive off a cliff to atone for all that independent fun.

Yes, caring for other people is noble, loving, generous, etc.

But so is caring for ourselves.

Have you ever journeyed by yourself?

Dd you enjoy it?

Did it change how you feel or think?

Are you an adult yet? How will you know?

By Caitlin Kelly

Toilet paper Español: Papel higiénico
Toilet paper . Yes, you actually have to go to a store and buy it! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are you an adult?

Here’s a new book, with 468 tips from a 28-year-old, about how to become one:

Ms. Brown, a 28-year-old advertising
copywriter in Portland, Ore., has set out to become a kind of Dear
Abby/Martha Stewart/Yoda for millennials.

Her new book, “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy (ish)
Steps” (Grand Central Publishing), is meant to help her peers navigate
the rocky shoals of maturity, to guide those 20-somethings who are just
figuring out that radio silence is not an acceptable breakup technique,
and food does not spontaneously manifest itself in the refrigerator.

“One of the most jolting days of adulthood comes the first time you run
out of toilet paper,” Ms. Brown said. “Toilet paper, up until this
point, always just existed.”

The idea for “Adulting” (which has just been optioned for television by
J. J. Abrams, executive producer of the “Lost” series) was refined when
Ms. Brown worked as a reporter for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore.,
consulting her Facebook friends for a column about what skills or
possessions they should have by the age of 30.

It’s an interesting progression, this growing up thing. I know some people in their 60s and beyond who still don’t have a very good grip on maturity while I recently met a 21-year-old, deeply serious, who worries terribly about others — and felt like someone a decade older in this respect.

I moved out of my father’s house in the first semester of my second year of university and found a tiny apartment.

Living alone there, I learned how to shop for clothes and food on a minusucle budget. Who to bring home and what would likely happen if I did. I learned to do my own laundry, find freelance clients for my writing and photos, how to haggle with cheap-o landlords and landladies.

As a freelancer, even then, I learned how to juggle the competing needs of my professors and my clients — not surprisingly, perhaps, the clients usually won!

When my mother, traveling alone, had health problems alone in places like Germany, Italy and India and ended up in trouble, I had to field calls from the Canadian and American consulates there asking me what to do with her.

So, truthfully, I have limited patience for people who find adulthood or independence frightening or overwhelming, who can’t understand the need to buy toilet paper or cook a meal or know how to figure stuff out.

And yet, here’s another new book that describes the very real struggles that working-class young adults are having as they try to gain traction in this crummy economy:

In a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., in early 2009, I sat across the table from Diana, then 24, in the kitchen of her mother’s house. Diana had planned to graduate from college, marry, buy a home in the suburbs and have kids, a dog and a cat by the time she was 30. But she had recently dropped out of a nearby private university after two years of study and with nearly $80,000 in student loans. Now she worked at Dunkin’ Donuts.

“With college,” she explained, “I would have had to wait five years to get a degree, and once I get that, who knows if I will be working and if I would find something I wanted to do. I don’t want to be a cop or anything. I don’t know what to do with it. My manager says some people are born to make coffee, and I guess I was born to make coffee.”

Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.

The markers of adulthood to me aren’t then the usual: college-grad-school-marry-procreate-own real estate-get a job-get-another-job.

Not everyone has those dreams. Or can afford them.

They’re things we all can do, even in our teens — like writing thank-you notes on paper; bringing a gift when you stay with someone; going to a funeral for someone you didn’t know to show respect for their family, which you do.

Knowing how to cook a healthy, affordable meal and serve it to others, lovingly and gracefully.

Understanding the importance of volunteering your skills and mentoring others when you can.

Knowing how to handle your own money intelligently and responsibly — your credit score, low-interest credit card (singular), your taxes and savings.

Helping someone prepare for major surgery and helping them heal after it. Going to chemo with them or helping them choose a wig when their hair falls out.

In an economy when one-third of us are working for ourselves anyway, defining ourselves as an adult by “getting a job” is an outdated metric.

And, again from The New York Times, the putative value of getting an English degree — which arguably will never get you a decent job:

STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

I was an English major, a choice I don’t regret. But I graduated with no debt.

Has that choice helped me as a writer? Frankly, no. I didn’t enjoy college much. I found it impersonal and bureaucratic and have never gone back for a graduate degree as a result.

What being an English major did teach me, by attending a ferociously demanding school, University of Toronto, was how to think, how to frame an argument, how to discuss ideas with passion and focus out loud with other smart, determined people.

So, those are life skills I’ve been using ever since. Chaucer and 16th. century drama? Not so much.

When, how and where did you learn your life skills?

What do you consider the markers or milestones of adulthood?

Is “Help!” a four-letter word for you?

English: "A Helping Hand". 1881 pain...
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I’ve just experienced the most dependent month of my adult life.

Having had full hip replacement, returning home bruised, swollen and sore, I needed daily — even multiple times a day — help to do the simplest of things: eat, dress, pull socks, stocking and shoes on and off, get in and out of bed, bathe.

I left my parents’ home at 19 and lived much of my life after that alone. I’d been sick as hell alone in my apartment or traveling far away where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language, in places like Venice or Istanbul. My family has never been close emotionally or physically — it was made very clear to me what, pretty much whatever happened to me, physically, financially, emotionally, it was up to me to figure out, and cope with it.

I hated being weak, needy and vulnerable. Surprise!

I finally drove this week — and showered (alone!) and tied my sneakers (unaided!) — for the first time in a month. I went by train into Manhattan, our nearest city, and saw a movie with a friend and did some clothes shopping. It was all deliciously new and deeply pleasant.

But I didn’t, as everyone expected, sigh with relief at finally regaining my cherished independence.

I loved having Jose home, to chat with and bring me breakfast in bed. Friends drove an hour to visit, bringing home-cooked meals and fresh cheer. Two close friends were kind enough to chauffeur me to physical therapy a few times, otherwise a $20 cab ride each way.

I’d never been so fussed over or cared for, and it was lovely. Our front door is covered in get-well cards. We ate dinners for three weeks cooked and delivered by members of our church.

As I’ve been walking our apartment property in spring sunshine, I’ve run into a neighbor, a single woman my age who is fighting cancer for the third time. She’s reluctant to ask for help, but she needs it from time to time.

We all do.

We are, even in our vigorous 20s or 30s, as likely to be felled by a vicious flu or a broken arm or a sprained ankle.

We need help, whether writing a better resume or finding the perfect wedding dress or learning how to refinish furniture or bathe a baby. But, for some reason, we’re supposed to shoo away a helping hand.

No, I’m, fine, really, we insist. Even when we’re really not at all fine and would kill for a helping hand or two.

Maybe we’re afraid no one will step up and be reliable and do the hard work, even for a while. As someone who took decades here in New York to make lasting friendships, this offered a huge and powerful lesson for me. We’re loved!

Do you find it difficult to ask others for help?

When you ask, do you receive it?

Doing Laundry, Changing Lightbulbs And Other Essential College Skills

U.S. Patent by Thomas Edison for an improved e...
Image via Wikipedia

Seriously?

Seriously?

There are kids going to college who have no idea how to —- change a lightbulb?

According to this recent piece in The New York Times, possibly not:

I will end with a bunch of random, yet helpful, tips garnered from a variety of sources. Make sure your son or daughter knows how to sew on a button or a repair a hem, change a light bulb (yes, honestly some have never done that at home), tie a tie, defrost a refrigerator (some dorm fridges aren’t self-defrosting) and judge how long different foods can stay in a refrigerator before going bad.

And here are a few more: How to tip properly, use a microwave safely, strip and make a bed, pack a suitcase and safeguard valuables.

Rant alert, dearest readers. I was out on my own, living in a minuscule studio apartment on a not-very-good street of downtown Toronto when I was 19, the fall semester of my sophomore year. Was I ready? Not really. But my family had sold the house and were headed off to live on a boat in Europe. Jump!

My rent was $165. I was on the ground floor (wrong!) facing an alley (wrong!) in a vaguely seedy/affordable neighborhood. I would not have qualified for student aid or loans and didn’t want dorm life after a childhood and adolescence spent at boarding school and summer camp sharing space with four to six strangers. I wanted privacy.

I still remember the price of a can of tuna then — 65 cents — as I ate a fair bit of it. I was not a very chic dresser as my budget was so tight; it took me months to save the $30 I then needed for tights, a leotard and slippers to take free ballet classes on campus. I bought and cooked my own food, did my own laundry, played “Hejira” on my stereo, entertained members of the opposite sex whenever I felt like it.

I lived there until June when, one terrifying night, a man leaned in my bathroom window and tried to pull me out of the bathtub. It’s true — you can be too scared to scream.

I moved into a sorority house the next week, safely on the top floor surrounded by other young women. That fall I moved into another tiny studio apartment, this one — like where I live now — overlooking nothing but trees, safely completely inaccessible in height and design on the sixth floor in a better area.

I learned a lot by living on my own so young: how to budget, how to deal with adults and professors and landlords without any help or intervention or advice from family; my parents were both very far away, both traveling and often unreachable. Whatever the problem, as an only child and already writing and selling photos to national publications to pay for school, it was mine  to solve.

My best advice to freshmen:

Learn how to get along with your professors. Don’t text them or expect hand-holding. They’re not Mummy. They are professionals paid to help you learn. Period.

Understand and respect the complex interplay between being drunk and stoned and the increased chances of a sexual encounter — or several — you did not anticipate, plan or want. Learn to say no, mean it and leave in sufficient sobriety you remain in control of your safety.

Practice using condoms. Use them.

Practice saying no. Mean it.

Enjoy the extraordinary array of facilities your campus offers you — socially, intellectually, physically. Even getting into a gym or pool as nice as yours right now will cost you a fortune post-grad.

Grades matter, but not as much as you think or fear (short of those applying to grad or professional programs.) That stellar GPA often means very little to most employers — who really crave ethical, hardworking and highly disciplined employees. Yes, a GPA is meant as proxy for all those qualities, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The “skills” you acquire by sitting in a college classroom and (only) striving for top grades may not translate tidily to a job in the real world.

You do not need to keep up with the materialistic cravings of your fellow students, whose parents may out-earn yours by many multiples. College is the first set of steps to adulthood, not four (or five or six) years of shrugged-off do-overs.

Work your ass off. Just do it. If you get into grad school, you’ll need to be in the habit. If you get a job, you’ll need it. If you have to work for yourself, self-discipline will prove far more valuable than your diploma.

A deadline  — i.e.  the paper is due Friday morning —  is not a suggestion. It is not negotiable. Not Friday afternoon six months from now.

Just because your BFFs are: bulimic or anorexic or tattooed or multiply pierced or high most of the time doesn’t meant this is a great trend to follow. College is a great place to locate and stiffen your spine.

Have fun! Get to know the sort of people you never even acknowledged in high school, The real world is going to put you face to face with all sorts of people from now on, so start discovering and enjoying them.

If someone comes on to you — whatever your sexuality or theirs — be flattered and polite, especially if sexual behavior is new to you, but go slowly. Sex is fun, but not worth getting an STD  or pregnant. Don’t confuse attention with affection.

Don’t focus all your energy on how much better everyone else is doing — socially, sexually, intellectually, athletically. If you’ve gotten into a good school, you’re now surrounded by some kick-ass talent. Watch it, learn from it, but don’t let it intimidate you.

Professors are not God. If you have a solidly researched and thoughtful opinion that differs from theirs, share it, politely. But your feelings are not facts. Learn the difference.

Take on leadership roles. You never know until you try if people will follow your lead. If they do, you know you’ve got the goods. They don’t teach that in the classroom, but the confidence it will give you will play out for years to come.

Here’s an interesting ongoing debate at the Times’ website on whether college is even worth it.

What’s your best advice to the class of 2015?

A Little Boy Lost — Murdered And Dismembered

13th Avenue in Borough Park
Borough Park, Brooklyn, scene of the murder. Image via Wikipedia

It takes a lot to shock New York, but the city and its suburbs are gasping today in shock, horror and fear at this week’s death and dismemberment of Leiby Kletzky, an eight-year-old boy kidnapped while walking home — for the first time — from day camp.

From today’s New York Times:

The funeral for the boy swelled to capacity before its scheduled start time at 8:30, prompting many of the thousands who could not get in to gather behind police barricades, crowding neighborhood streets as they waited to pay their respects to the young boy, Leiby Kletzky, whose remains were discovered earlier in the day. Throngs of police officers and members of a local security patrol group, the shomrim, kept order as a steady stream of visitors poured into the courtyard, adjacent to a school between 16th and 17th Avenues, within two blocks of where the boy lived. One of the shomrim volunteers estimated close to 8,000 people were in attendance.

That the alleged killer is a fellow Jew, that it happened within the confines of Borough Park, a heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood where many small children live, has made the horror even worse.

The murder is terrifying for every parent, every child, everyone — and I have no kids — who deeply values trust, kindness, the benevolent stranger who will, when you are wandering and scared, help you.

Not kill you.

This story hit me hard because I have, many times, placed my trust — as a woman, alone, often in foreign countries — in strangers. I have gotten into their cars and trucks, have accepted spontaneous invitations into their homes, stayed in their apartments and houses. In not one instance, ever, was I scared, threatened, propositioned, aggressed.

I made friends, ate some great meals, had wonderful adventures. In Palermo, 26, alone, I met two men in the vegetable market, the Vucciria, like me out taking photos. When I ran out of film (these were the 80s) one gave me a roll, a generous gesture when color film overseas was costly. Astor and Nini invited me to their apartment for lunch. I was alone, female, carrying Nikon cameras. A total mark.

I went. Lunch was amazing: fun, a few others for company, and then they dropped me off at the TV station where I had an interview later that day.

It could have ended very badly. It did not.

The problem every parent faces, and each of us must negotiate — at every age — is when, where and how much (if?) to trust someone we do not know, have recently met and whose motives appear kind and helpful.

They can be evil. They can be a predator.

I know this, too, having become, home in New York, the victim of a con man, a convicted felon who brought me a pot of homemade soup, who showered me with affection and lavish praises…all in order to gain access to my credit cards, finances and who knows what else.

The police and DA laughed at my naievete, shrugged off the fact he’d committed six felonies in the time I knew him (from opening my mail to using my credit card to forging my signtaure) — and left me with the sad, dark and undeniable knowledge that monsters do live among us.

When I Grow Up, I Want To Be An Old Woman

The United Colors of an Old Woman
Image by pedrosimoes7 via Flickr

I live in an apartment building that is, frankly, something of an old age home — filled with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s. There are days I weary of gray hair and halting gaits, but I have also learned to appreciate the deep value of role models, especially of older women living, well, alone.

My theme song is this, a rockabilly anthem to feisty female old age, from a 1988 album by Michelle Shocked.

I’m thinking of this because one of our building’s two cool 96-year-olds, one of whom lives on my floor, was taken to the hospital by ambulance yesterday. She’s got brilliant blue eyes, thick white hair, and a spirit so lively and outgoing we all love her. I’m praying for her.

The other, on my floor, is wealthy, a bit of a grande dame. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with a live-in helper. (Money is a wonderful, necessary adjunct to a decent, solitary [even shared] old age.) She wears fab clothes, keeps a fresh manicure, comes down to the pool, even with a walker.

Most women, statistically, will outlive their husbands or male partners. We have to be ready, in every way, to survive — and thrive — on our own.

But I also treasure Marie, 80, on my floor. She’s still married. She wears an immaculate bouffant pompadour hairdo, dresses with style and had a male stripper for her 80th. I asked her in the elevator one day — she’s OK with this sort of directeness — “How old are you, anyway?” I thought, maybe, late 60s.

I feel too fragile these days because of my aching, injured hip. When I watch these women soldiering along, finding new beaux, slapping on the mascara and nail polish and a smile, heading out for dinner with their girlfriends, I’m glad I don’t live surrounded by 20 or 30-somethings, slick and invulnerable.

These ladies are survivors. I hope to be one, too.