I know, for some of you — parents, caregivers, those on super-tight budgets, in school — that’s not easy to do.
2018 did not begin well for me — the first time in many years I earned no income at all from my freelance work, for two months.
And our fixed monthly living costs, even without children or debt, are more than $5,000 a month, so no income from my side meant digging into our savings. (Which we are lucky to have!)
Burned out, I recently took a two-week break, and that cost us even more lost income and savings, in hotel/gas/meals, for 2 weeks back in Ontario, where I grew up and have many friends. (A last-minute change of plans meant our free dog-sitting housing fell through.)
The “freedom” of freelance work also means that every minute we’re not working, we lose income. No paid vacation days for us!
But oh, I needed some time off, and so did my weary full-time freelance husband Jose, a photo editor.
We didn’t do very much: napped, read magazines and books, had some very good meals, enjoyed long evenings with old friends, took photos, hit some golf balls at the driving range. Visited with my Dad, who lives alone and who turns 89 in June.
I was burned out and deeply frustrated by endless rejections and some nasty encounters. Fed up!
I came home renewed, and have been pitching up a storm of fresh ideas and projects, trying for some new and much more ambitious targets. I’ve also been asking others for more help achieving some of my goals than I used to — doing everything alone is exhausting and demoralizing. (It’s really interesting to see who follows through, generously, and who — for all their very public social media all about how they believe deeply in mentorship — won’t lift a finger.)
In a country, (the U.S., where I live) and state (New York) where costs are so high and many people work insane hours, it’s counter-cultural to even admit to wanting a break, let alone taking one.
Not a glamorous brag-worthy Insta-perfect exotic and foreign vacation.
No poolside fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them.
My favorite reading of the past few years is the weekend Financial Times, a British daily newspaper focused on global finance, whose weekend edition is so filled with great writing and fun discoveries it often takes us three weeks to get through one copy.
Its oversize glossy magazine — with typical British toff nonchalance — is called How to Spend It, and since many of its readers make an absolute shit-ton of money, it routinely includes things like a $30,000 watch, a $5,000 silk trench coat and $10,000 gold cufflinks.
But fear not. It’s not all absurdly priced knick-knacks, but also offers — if you love good food, drink and travel as much as I do — ideas and inspiration.
A regular column in the magazine, The Aesthete poses the following 13 questions, with helpful links.
A bunch of yellow roses with coral edges, from the local supermarket.
And the thing I’m eyeing next
Something sharp and minimal to freshen my spring wardrobe from Cos, the higher-end cousin of Sweden’s H & M. https://www.cosstores.com
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe
were two stretch dresses, calf-length, in black and mustard, bought in Montreal at Aritzia, a Canadian company based in my birthplace, Vancouver. They also have stores in several major American cities. I love how clean and simple their clothing is, slightly more junior and lower quality than Cos, but versatile and terrific when you get a good piece. https://www.aritzia.com/
An unforgettable place I’ve traveled to in the past year
is Rovinj, Croatia. I discovered it through a travel blogger I met in Berlin and whose rave recommendation (and personal style) were enough to persuade me to book in for a week at a gorgeous/pricey boutique hotel called Angelo D’Oro. Most people head south to Hvar and Dubrovnik, but Istria, to the north, is also very beautiful. Rovinj is called little Venice — and you can easily zip across to Venice itself by hovercraft in a few hours. http://www.angelodoro.com/
And the best souvenir I’ve brought home
is a shard of red, yellow and green pottery, maybe 17th century, found in the muddy banks of the Thames by a “mudlarker” and bought at a London flea market for 10 pounds.
A recent “find”
is Shuka, an airy restaurant in downtown Manhattan, at 38 MacDougal Street. It serves Middle eastern food in one of the prettiest rooms I’ve seen in years, lots of decorated tile and a sunny, spacious back room. https://www.shukanewyork.com/
The person I rely on for my personal grooming
is Alex, who’s owned Hairhoppers at 50 Grove Street in New York’s West Village for decades. His shop is minuscule, with only three chairs, and his co-ed clientele of all ages is the best mix imaginable — I’ve sat beside. and happily chatted with, Grammy-nominated musicians, museum curators and little old ladies in from Staten Island. No website!
An object I would never part with
is my black and white poster of Paris at dawn by the legendary French artist Sempé. On my first honeymoon in rural France, everything was stolen from our rental car, leaving us with passports, tickets and not much else — the poster survived. It reminds me daily of my favorite city. https://condenaststore.com/collections/jean+jacques+sempe
The last meal that truly impressed me
was at a local joint, Scaramella’s, in Dobbs Ferry, NY, in our suburban county, located in a small, nothing-special strip mall. The Italian food is excellent, service to match. No website.
The best gift I’ve given recently
were earrings, tiny gold stars studded with diamonds I had sent to British Columbia for a dear friend’s milestone birthday. I’ve been buying from this Toronto jeweler — named for its founder, a former Varig pilot, Vic Secrett — since I had any money to spend. Prices aren’t all as scary as you’d think! http://www.secrett.ca/
If I had to limit my shopping to one neighborhood in one city, I’d choose
Queen Street West in my hometown of Toronto. Lots of great choices, from ribbons to stationery to clothing to shoes, homewares, furniture and art. You can easily jump around by using the streetcar as the shopping stretches for miles. Check out the Japanese Paper Place, Gaspard (women’s clothing), Lavish & Squalor for men’s and women’s clothing and housewares, and Gravity Pope, for a fantastic selection of men’s and women’s shoes. https://www.gravitypope.com/
My favorite website
Swann Galleries, an auction house in New York, which specializes in works on paper. I went in person last fall and splurged, scoring pieces by Raoul Dufy and Maurice Vlaminck, both French works from the 1920s, both of which now hang in our bedroom. https://www.swanngalleries.com/
Have you ever noticed how we now spend our lives in thrall not only to technology — but to dozens of its ruthlessly dictated speeds?
I thought of this when I visited The New York Times building, a stunning white-column-covered tower in midtown Manhattan.
First, like many lobbies now, you have to be buzzed through a set of metal gates by their security guards.
Then you choose a dedicated elevator that will tell you which floors it will take you to — but those doors close quickly! You have to pay close attention and move fast.
We do this every day now, accommodating our pace to that of computers, cellphones, (maybe even a landline, still!), escalators and elevators.
Crossing Manhattan’s busy streets means facing a timed light, even if you need to cross six or eight lanes of traffic. If, as I often do, you’re struggling with arthritis or an injury affecting your mobility, those seconds fly by.
Only if you live in a rural area or don’t spend much time in urban settings can you avoid this tyranny by tech.
I won’t romanticize the rural life — where some students are up in darkness to meet the school bus (more life-by-appointment) — or where farmers’ lives are dictated by the needs of their livestock or other animals.
I do often wonder what life was like in the pre-industrial 19th. century and before, before electricity and artificial light and kerosene and gas, when the only illumination was candles, often reflected in as many mirrors as possible.
When the only noise might be the ticking of a grandfather clock.
When our rhythms were primarily dictated by light and darkness, cold and warmth — not the 24/7 demands of a global economy where someone, somewhere can expect us to do something for them right away.
When a long journey consisted of stagecoach or carriage rides, punctuated with real rest stops and fresh horses.
Candle Hour has become a soul-level bulwark against so many different kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping not just out of my day but out of time itself. I shunt aside outrages and anxieties. I find the less conditional, more indomitable version of myself. It’s that version I send into my dreams.
At night, by candlelight, the world feels enduring, ancient and slow. To sit and stare at a candle is to drop through a portal to a time when firelight was the alpha and omega of our days. We are evolved for the task of living by candlelight and maladapted to living the way we live now. Studies have noted the disruptive effects of nighttime exposure to blue-spectrum light — the sort emanated by our devices — on the human circadian rhythm. The screens trick us into thinking we need to stay alert, because our brains register their wavelength as they would the approach of daylight. But light on the red end of the spectrum sends a much weaker signal. In the long era of fire and candlelight, our bodies were unconfused as they began to uncoil.
I love the writing of fellow Canadian Carl Honoré, whose career focuses on urging us all to slow down.
I was struck recently by a social media post by someone I know who works in a demanding healthcare specialty. She had treated herself to a fantastic day trip to a nearby natural wonder and a gorgeous splurge of a breakfast.
What struck me most was the sense this was something, perhaps, to apologize for.
That taking —- making — time to care for herself and her soul was somehow suspect or self-indulgent.
I think being consistently kind to ourselves is essential and something too often overlooked or dismissed as silly, by others and worse, by ourselves. Women are so heavily socialized to take care of everyone else’s needs first and foremost that, when there’s a lack of time or money — and there often is — we get the short end of the stick.
I’m not someone who advocates self-indulgence or hedonism, (and who draws the line?) but I’m absolutely committed to what is now called self care.
For me that’s everything from playing my beloved vinyl on a Sunday morning to making home-made meals I can enjoy during the week, with my husband and on my own.
I spend real money at our local florist, sometimes as much as $25 a week, to fill our apartment with blooms and greenery, whether fragrant eucalyptus or bright gerbera or the tiny purple orchids that come all the way from Thailand. To me, it’s an investment in daily joy and beauty.
I go to a spin class at the gym to burn calories, manage stress, to enjoy the music and see familiar faces. It offers me a low-key social life and human contact when I work alone at home, now 11 years into that isolating workstyle.
I make play dates with friends, meeting them face to face for a coffee or lunch or a concert or ballet performance, creating memories we can share years later. I went to a fantastic Iron & Wine concert this week at Town Hall with a dear pal and made her spit with laughter over Manhattans at the bar in Grand Central. Priceless!
I love to travel, so am always looking a few weeks and months ahead at where we might be able to afford to go, and for how long. It refreshes me, whether seeing old friends back in Toronto or meeting new ones, as I did this summer in Berlin and Zagreb.
I commit a few hours each week to my favorite television shows. (Poldark!)
And this year — for the first time in my life — I’m driving a brand-new car, a luxury vehicle we’ve leased. Despite my initial trepidation, it is sheer bliss: quiet, beautifully designed, with intelligent and helpful technology. Our other vehicle is 16 years old, dented and scraped and, no matter how much money we drop at the mechanic, always has the check engine light on; freedom from that anxiety alone is a form of self care for me now.
It can feel weird, even guilt-inducing, to put yourself first, to say no, firmly (and mean it!) to others’ demands on your limited time and energy.
But without adding even the smallest pleasures to our days, and to our lives, we can end up stewing in resentment and self-denial.
In 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program. The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one’s health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.
I start to feel very ill at ease when I haven’t spent time in nature and in silence there; after two tedious months of physical therapy aimed at loosening and strengthening my arthritic right knee, each session consuming two hours, I was sick to death of only relating to machines and being stuck indoors.
On our trip to Montreal we continued north to Mont Tremblant and spent two days enjoying what was left of the autumn leaf colors and stunningly warm weather.
The area is full of walking and cycling trails so we took one through the woods down to the Diable River where we sat on the rocks and listened to the rushing river. The woods were largely silent except for one nearby blue jay.
I loved the lush moss, peeling birch trees, sun-dappled leaves and ancient stones.
I loved the soothing sound of the river rushing over and around rocks.
I loved watching leaves tumble into the water, only to be swept under and away like little yellow boats.
The day before, I ventured to the edge of the hotel property and found a grove of trees whose thick, twisted, intertwined roots looked like nothing I’d ever seen before anywhere, like something out of a fairy tale.
I sat on them for a while, just being still and present, watching the sun glow lower and lower through the trees. The woods were silent — no chipmunks or squirrels rustling past, no birds squawking to one one another.
It was eerie and disorienting.
But so, so good to be out, once more in nature, as always reminded that humans are just one more species.
If my European journey taught me anything — or reminded me more powerfully than ever before — it’s to live, and savor, an unmediated life.
By which I mean, one experienced firsthand, feet-first, immersed in all of it.
Not, as has become normal/affordable/easy for me — and so many of us — a world and its wonders seen and heard only through a screen or scrim, whether social media or explained by the traditional mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
The soft, smooth cobblestones of Rovinj — a small seaside town in Croatia — were silky beneath my bare feet, the light snaking around corners as the sun moved through the sky, every hour offering a different tableau.
I’d have known none of this without my (grateful!) physical presence.
Ironically, I follow several cool, adventurous people on Twitter whose lives are devoted to professional exploration, including aviation and wildlife photographers and three archeologists.
I love seeing what they find, but this is also, I realize, a little weird.
I need to go find this stuff myself!
Sadly, it’s now considered normal — starting in infancy — to spend hours consuming others’ visions and impressions and analysis of the world, instead of gathering every sense impression ourselves. (As I write this on our balcony in the early morning, I hear traffic on the bridge, a passing train and birds in the trees. The air is fresh and cool, the sun gilding the balcony’s outer edge.)
I work alone at home in the suburbs of New York, with no kids or pets to distract me. I work full-time freelance, which means I have no boss or coworkers with whom to share ideas or jokes or talk about our weekends.
Most of my friends here are too busy to actually get together in person, which all combines to create isolation, and so I’ve slipped into the tempting bad habit of feeling connected to the world through consuming social media — instead of socializing face to face.
If I want to actually be with someone, it takes me an hour each way, and up to $25 in train fare or parking fees, to go into Manhattan.
But if I don’t, I’m essentially a self-imposed shut-in, which is — my six supersocial weeks in Europe reminded me — a terrible choice for mental health.
My time in Europe, literally, exposed me to hundreds of strangers, some of whom became new friends, like an archeologist and travel blogger and translator, all of whom live in Berlin, all of whom had only been Twitter and blog pals before they became real, corporeal human beings sharing space with me, laughing and joking and hugging hello.
I was also struck by people’s gentleness with me, like the man on the busy, crowded Tube stairs in London, watching me slowly and painfully climb beside him, who asked: “Are you OK?”
People can be perfectly nice on social media, but they’re not beside you.
They’re not — as two young men did — ready to carry your heavy suitcase up (!) three flights of stairs.
In Croatia, I sat for hours in a cafe with three new friends, talking and talking and talking.
No one stared into their phones.
No one stared into their laptop.
No one was rushing off to something more important.
What we were doing — just being together, enjoying one another’s company and conversation — was more important.
One new friend, a Zagreb travel agent, says: “A perfect vacation is one without expectations..”
She might be right.
When I plan a vacation I focus on what I, (and/or my husband), really want to do, (not what we see on social media or what’s “hot” this year) — informed by my participation in multiple weekly travel Twitterchats, and reading travel websites, blog posts and articles that offer specific ideas and inspiration.
Having been to 40 countries, I’m torn between visiting the familiar, like Ireland, (five visits), and France (many more), and seeking out new experiences.
Things to consider when planning your holiday:
For how long? (Will it be enough or will you get bored?)
Using what transportation?
With whom, (or alone?)
How much activity, and how much downtime?
How many (tiring) travel days and transfers?
What will you give up to stay on budget, (e.g. luxury hotels, taxis everywhere)?
Washington, D.C. June 2016
“Perfect” for me includes:
— Easy/safe/quick/affordable, (hello, $$$$$ London!), public transit in and around the city/town, ideally without cars or taxis. My favorite vacations involve no driving, unless it’s a road trip or touring.
— Making emotional connections. I travel out of curiosity, and having long conversations with a country’s residents is a great joy for me. I got to know two sisters in Croatia whose powerful memories of Zagreb being bombed are much more powerful to me than any lovely vista.
— Kind and welcoming locals. I liked Berlin, but didn’t enjoy “Berliner schnauze”, a biting, sarcastic edge that’s quite common. Travel is disorienting enough and you can feel vulnerable, especially if you’re alone. Croatians have been terrific.
— Healthy food at decent prices. Easy access to farmer’s markets, (in cities like Toronto, Paris, London, Zagreb, New York), can make a real difference to your budget and ability to eat well.
— A climate with some variation. If it’s a sweltering 80 to 90+ degrees during the day, a drop of even 10 degrees and a breeze is a blessing. I can’t handle humidity; cold, for this Canadian, is not a problem.
— Ready access to nature: lake, river, ocean, forest, parks, gardens. Too much concrete makes me feel ill, even on a city-focused trip.
— Great shopping. I love finding items, styles and colors I just can’t get in New York (yes, really.). I treasure wearing and using them for years to come.
— Culture/design whether music, museums or just well-designed lighting, streetscapes and buildings.
— Personal safety. Especially in an era of terror attacks, I avoid crowds whenever possible and am extremely aware of my surroundings in large cities..
— Fleeing American violence and toxic politics. I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1989, but am so sickened and embarrassed by its current politics and President I want to be as far away from of it as I can afford, and for as long as I can afford.
Nor do I want, on vacation, to be surrounded by Americans, so I choose places, and hotels, with a more international clientele.
While trying to relax, the last thing I want to think or talk about is American politics.
— History. The town I’m writing this in, Rovinj, Croatia, has buildings from the 16th century — and my hotel dates from the 18th and 17th, two buildings later combined. I’m happiest in places with a rich, accessible history.
Eastern Europe also offers something I’d never seen before — in Berlin, Budapest and Zagreb, museums of torture, places where its citizens suffered unspeakable crimes. History is filled with darkness, too.
— Grace notes
Everything from the starched, spotless linen napkins and tablecloths in my Rovinj hotel to the oleander blossoms that fall onto my breakfast plate from the terrace’s overhanging trees. For me, touches of beauty and elegance make a place deeply memorable.
It’s so tempting to gogogogogogogo. I finally lay in bed one afternoon and napped and listened, on the Internet, to my favorite weekend radio shows from NPR.
— A mix of solo and accompanied time
So many women are afraid to strike out alone, to eat alone, to walk alone.
I’ve done it in Istanbul, Spain, Mexico…
Dig through the archives here and you’ll find several posts detailing how to do it safely and enjoyably.
Ideally, I like a mix of vacation time both solo and accompanied; alone here, I’ve had terrific conversations with bus and train mates, at cafes and in shops and restaurants. These included two U of Texas accounting students; a Croatian art history major; a Romanian professor of environmental anthropology; an epee fencer, and an electrical engineer, both from Zagreb and an IBM exec — who I met smoking a hookah! — who’d worked for NGOs in Africa.
Even when I travel with my beloved husband, taking some daily time apart is essential.
Some of our best vacations have included:
• Our rented cottage in Dungloe, Donegal, in June 2015, (through this website), and the flat we rented twice on the Ile St. Louis in Paris (friends.)
• A five-week bus journey throughout Mexico in May 2005, including Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived as a teenager.
• Since our first visit in the fall of 2001, exhausted by covering the events of 9/11, we’ve returned six (!) times, so far, to Manoir Hovey, a resort on Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a 7-hour drive from our home in New York; elegant but not stuffy, welcoming, great food and lovely in every season.
This European trip has offered virtually no disappointments, not bad for a month on the road through four countries so far. I chose a mix of larger and smaller cities, with a seaside break in Istria, Croatia.
I also chose three long train journeys — Paris-Berlin (7 hours), Berlin-Budapest (13 hours), Budapest-Zagreb (6 hours) — in order to rest and see the countryside. I dislike flying, so this also reduced my stress.
This trip’s two greatest surprise expenses?
Hotel laundry, (sweaty from walking all day in 80+ degree heat; one hotel even forbade hand washing!), and taxis, when my arthritic right knee gave out. I could have used laundromats, (as I have in Paris), but right now, free time is more precious to me.
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.